Texas Democrats flee state to highlight GOP voting restrictions

STERLING, Virginia – Democrats in Texas fled the state on Monday in a last-ditch effort to prevent the passage of a new restrictive voting law by the Republican-controlled legislature, traveling to Washington to call national attention to their cause.

The group left Austin mid-afternoon on two chartered flights that arrived at Dulles International Airport just before sunset. An official involved in the effort said more than 51 of State House’s 67 Democrats have signed, enough to prevent Texas Republicans from reaching a quorum, which is necessary to conduct state business.

The hastily arranged departure added a cinematic element to partisan bickering in a state with a colorful political history. Democrats have fled to neighboring states in the past in an attempt to block legislation, including in 2003, when they traveled to New Mexico and Oklahoma in an effort to avoid Republican attempts to redesign ridings in the Congress.

The move could cripple the legislature for weeks if Democrats stay out of state until the end of this special session in August. Still, it lays bare their limited long-term options in a legislature where Republicans hold a majority in both chambers. Parliamentary procedures and efforts to add amendments can delay the process but not derail it. Republicans said on Monday that the Democrats’ bet would ultimately fail.

State Representative Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said leaving Democrats “slows things down” but won’t stop Republicans from winning .

“It only delays the inevitable,” Cain said, calling the move a “political theater.” “We’ll do it eventually, this special or another.”

Nonetheless, by flocking to Washington, Democrats in Texas hoped to put pressure on Democrats in the US Senate who so far have been unable to pass federal legislation to address the issue.

“We have to decide whether we are going to defend democracy,” said state representative Trey Martinez Fischer, who organized the effort to leave the state. “We want the nation to join us and we want the US Senate to hear us and act.”

The move comes just a day before President Biden delivers a major speech on voting rights in Philadelphia. Activists pleaded with the administration to deal with the problem with greater urgency.

At a White House press conference on Monday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Biden would focus his speech on a broad and targeted response to the restrictive new election legislation passed through the country. The election laws recently passed by Republicans, Ms. Psaki said, were “the worst challenge to our democracy since the civil war.”

The House Democrats‘ leak marks the second time in six weeks that they have used extreme measures in an attempt to prevent the passage of a new voting bill. hours before The regularly scheduled session of the legislature ended in May, Democrats walked out of the Capitol Chamber to deny Republicans a quorum, although in this case they only walked a few miles to a nearby church .

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, responded to the initial walkout by calling a special 30-day session that began Thursday. Along with the proposed votes, the governor called on the Legislature to take other actions that Democratic lawmakers oppose: tackling perceived “censorship” on social media platforms; ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools; and prevent trans athletes from participating in school sports.

Leading Democrats on Monday praised Texas lawmakers for taking a stand on a critical issue. “I applaud them for standing up for the rights of all Americans and Texans to express their voices through their unhindered vote,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at an event in Detroit.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who chaired a group of Texas House Democrats during their visit to Capitol Hill after their first walkout, said the arrival of the Texans would highlight the “many vehicles” in which to adopt the federal voting reforms.

“They’re coming to the one place that should give them salvation and it’s time to do it,” she said in a phone interview.

But Texas Republicans have suggested Democrats abdicate their responsibilities by leaving the state.

Tony Tinderholt, a conservative Republican from Arlington, said Democratic lawmakers “should be held accountable” if they do not return to their seats when the House resumes at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Mr Tinderholt introduced a resolution that would punish members who leave the chamber during deliberations to break the quorum.

“We have all taken an oath, we have a duty,” he said. “If you work for a company and didn’t like what they were doing that day and decided not to work. I think most people would be fired and punished.

State House Republican Speaker Dade Phelan said he would use lawyers / etc. to research options under the constitution and house rules.

berated Democrats for leaving as legislature funding – which Abbott vetoed and was on the special session’s agenda – remains in limbo. “These actions jeopardize state funding that will deprive thousands of hard-working staff and their families of a paycheck, health benefits and retirement investment so that lawmakers who do not ‘have not reached a quorum can flee to Washington DC by private jet, “he said.

Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor, mocked the Democrats by tweet a photo which showed them preparing to travel with a case of beer in one of the seats.

No member of the Senate from a Democratic state accompanied his colleagues in the House, and Republicans expressed hope that members of the Senate would show up for Tuesday’s session, although no bills could pass. with the approval of only one room.

State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, said he expects the chamber to pass voting legislation on Tuesday, and said party members in the Senate had made no plans similar to those of their colleagues in the House.

“Senate Democrats are keeping all their options open,” Whitmire said. “I don’t know if a consensus has been built.”

Over the past few months, Democrats across the country have been grappling with one of the most dramatic contractions in access to the vote in generations. Republican-controlled legislatures in more than 14 states have passed election laws that include new general restrictions on voting.

Credit…Eric Gay / Associate Press

But the Texas bill is among the largest and most sweeping efforts to restrict voting in a state that is already one of the toughest in the country to vote, with Democrats and voting groups claiming that the passage of the bill threatens the very democratic foundations of the state.

Among other provisions, the latest Republican proposal would ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting; add new voter identification requirements for postal voting; increase criminal penalties for election workers who violate regulations; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of pro-election observers.

Over the weekend, the Republican-controlled Texas House and Senate pushed the legislation out of committee to the plenary chamber, after marathon sessions that, in the House’s case, lasted nearly 24 hours. GOP leaders planned to head for a final vote from Tuesday.

Mr Abbott, the governor, is running for re-election next year and faces major challenges from several conservative Republicans, including former Rep. Allen West, whose term as Chairman of the Texas Republican Party has ended this week-end. He said overhauling the state’s electoral system was one of his top priorities.

On Monday, Abbott said the leak of members of the Texas Democratic House “inflicts damage on the Texans who elected them to serve” and called on members to “return to the job they were elected to do.”

If Democrats stay out of state and refuse a quorum until the special session ends at the end of the month, Mr Abbott can simply call another. He is certain to call at least one more session later this year to pass new congressional and legislative maps and allocate billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding.

Texas Democrats used their temporary victory in May to draw attention to their efforts to block new Republican election laws and debate in the U.S. Senate over whether to pass federal protections for voters. They traveled to Washington to lobby Senators on Capitol Hill and met Ms. Harris at the White House.

But efforts by Congressional Democrats to pass a sweeping new election law, The Law for the People, were stalled last month when Republicans blocked it in the Senate.

The Texas Democrats’ escape follows days of internal deliberations over how aggressively to resist Republican voting proposals. While a group of young progressive lawmakers advocated leaving the state, the party leadership had been more cautious, pushing for a plan to force a series of votes on amendments to water down the bill.

Democrats’ reluctance to flee the state evaporated over the weekend as liberal activists, citizens of Texas and Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who is the most popular figure in the State, testified in a hearing that began Saturday morning and lasted nearly 24 hours.

By late Sunday afternoon, there was enough momentum towards the start that Democratic leaders who had privately warned against doing so joined the plan.

While leaving the state is sure to attract attention and boost fundraising, the move is not without risks. In addition to being away from home and their families for several weeks, Texas state lawmakers are part-time and many have other jobs that they may not be able to relate to remotely. And without a quorum, lawmakers won’t be able to authorize payroll funding for themselves or their staff, something Abbott vetoed in June after the first walkout.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.

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