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Texas Democrats addressing departure to try to stop GOP voting bill

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers left for Washington, D.C., on Monday.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Democrats in the Texas Legislature on Monday bolted for Washington, D.C., and said they were ready to remain there for weeks in a second revolt against a GOP overhaul of election laws, forcing a dramatic new showdown over voting rights in America.

Private planes carrying a large group of Democrats took off from an airport in Austin, skipping town just days before the Texas House of Representatives was expected to give early approval to sweeping new voting restrictions in a special legislative session. Hours after they took off, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told an Austin television station he would keep calling special sessions through next year if necessary, and raised the possibility of Democrats facing arrest upon returning home.

More than 50 Texas lawmakers landed in the Washington suburb of Sterling, Virginia, Monday evening and were taken on two large charter buses from a private terminal to a parking lot near the main terminal of Dulles Airport, where they were expected to address the media. Most were dressed in street clothes rather than formal dress, and were milling about prior to the press conference.

By leaving, Democrats again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after a walkout thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas, including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.

“This is a now-or-never for our democracy. We are holding the line in Texas,” said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer. “We’ve left our jobs, we’ve left our families, we’ve left our homes. Because there is nothing more important than voting rights in America.”

It was not immediately clear how many of the 67 Democrats in the Texas House left, but party leaders said it would be enough to bring the Legislature to a halt.

The decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure on President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level. Biden is set to deliver a major address on the issue Tuesday in Philadelphia, after facing growing criticism for taking what some on the left call too passive a role in the fight.

The lawmakers are expected to meet with Democrats across Washington. But a White House official said there are no current plans for a White House visit.

The drastic move lays bare how Democrats are making America’s biggest red state their last stand against the GOP’s rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.

Credit: Heikki Mustonen/KVUE
Supporters of Texas Democrats gather outside the airport on Monday afternoon

It marks the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, have crossed state lines to break quorum.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan promised to use “every available resource” to secure a quorum. He did not elaborate, but some House Republicans signaled they would take action when the chamber reconvenes Tuesday. When Democrats fled the state two decades ago — in a failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps — state troopers were deployed to bring them back.

In an interview with KVUE, Abbott said he was prepared to keep calling special sessions though next year’s election.

“If these people want to be hanging out, wherever they’re hanging out on this taxpayer-paid junket, they’re going to have to be prepared to do it for well over a year. As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done,” Abbott said.

His spokeswoman did not immediately return a message.

Meanwhile State Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) filed a proposed constitutional amendment to stop pay for lawmakers who break quorum.

"Tell me another job where someone could grab a case of beer and leave during the middle of the day, hop on a private plane to skip out on work, and then expect to still get paid?" Middleton said in a statement on Monday. "In the real world, you don’t show up for work, you don’t get paid. That’s all HJR 22 does – it stops the paycheck of legislators who skip out on the job."

Over the weekend, Texas Republicans began advancing measures that also bring back provisions to ban drive-thru voting, add new voter ID requirements to absentee ballots and prohibit local elections officials from proactively sending mail-in ballot applications to voters. Abbott also gave lawmakers a lengthy to-do list this summer, heavy on hot-button conservative issues including restrictions over how race is taught in schools and banning transgender athletes from playing in girls’ sports.

The decision to flee carries risks, and no guarantee of victory in the long run.

Abbott, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has demanded new election laws in Texas, could keep calling 30-day special sessions until a bill is passed. He also punished Democrats after their May walkout by vetoing paychecks for roughly 2,000 Capitol employees, which will begin taking effect in September unless the Legislature is in session to restore the funding.

Staying away for an extended time could also carry repercussions in next year’s midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats are already expecting a difficult cycle in 2022, particularly with Republicans set to begin drawing new voting maps this fall that could cement their majorities.

As Democrats prepared to settle in for a possible long haul in Washington, it was not immediately clear who was footing the bill for the exodus. Martinez Fischer said he would use his own campaign funds to pay for hotels for House members, but declined to comment on who funded the chartered flights.

For weeks, Democrats have signaled they were ready to draw a line. Adding to their anger: A Houston man who gained attention last year after waiting more than six hours to cast a ballot was arrested on illegal voting charges a day before the special session began Thursday. Attorneys for Hervis Rogers say the 62-year-old did not know that his being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he wasn’t allowed to vote.

Vice President Kamala Harris applauded Texas Democrats for their “courage and commitment” before they boarded the flight. Back in Texas, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signaled that he would still try to pass a voting bill as early as Tuesday in the Senate. It was unclear whether Democrats in that chamber would continue showing up.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus released the following statement Monday afternoon:

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote.

“We are now taking the fight to our nation’s Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans — and all Americans — from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also issued a statement:

“Today, by breaking quorum to block Abbott’s attacks on voters, Texas Democrats are making history. After Abbott dragged lawmakers back to the Capitol for his suppression session, Democrats are fighting back with everything we’ve got. We will not stand by and watch Republicans slash our right to vote, silence the voices of Texans of color, and destroy our democracy — all to preserve their own power. Our lawmakers have refused to be complicit in Republicans’ destructive attacks — and they’re doing what Texans need them to do: hold the line so that not one more anti-voter law can be passed in Texas.

“There’s no democracy without the right to vote. Once again, Democrats are standing strong and united to defend the right of every eligible Texas voter to make their voice heard. I’m incredibly proud of our Texas Democratic lawmakers, who continue to fight relentlessly on behalf of Texans, voters, and our democracy.

“Republicans are attacking our voting rights for one reason: they know their days in power are numbered, so they’re trying to cling to power the only way they can — by stopping us from voting. Texas Democrats have stood strong in the face of these attacks all year, and we will not let up. We will keep holding the line for our democracy and the voice of every single Texan.”

Gov. Greg Abbott released the following statement:

"Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve. As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.

"Issues like:

  • property tax relief,
  • funding to support Sheriffs and law enforcement in high crime areas,
  • funding for children in foster care, and,
  • funding for retired teachers.

"The Democrats must put aside partisan political games and get back to the job they were elected to do. Their constituents must not be denied these important resources simply because their elected representative refused to show up to work."

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan released the following:

“A number of House Democrats stated their caucus intends to break quorum in an attempt to stall election integrity legislation. These actions put at risk state funding that will deny thousands of hard-working staff members and their families a paycheck, health benefits, and retirement investment so that legislators who broke quorum can flee to Washington, D.C., in private jets. The Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, Article X funding, and the other important measures Gov. Abbott placed on the special session agenda. The special session clock is ticking — I expect all Members to be present in our Capitol in order to immediately get to work on these issues.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the following:

“This immature behavior by House Democrats is not only childish; it is a disgrace to democracy. Their capricious act will not thwart our leadership’s efforts for stronger election integrity, bail reform, retired teacher benefits, and Child Protective Services reform, among other important agenda items. House Democrats have hurt their constituents and demonstrated that when they’re faced with a problem, they run away - literally. It’s shameful and they have failed as elected officials.”

Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller sent the following letter to Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan to take immediate action to stop Democrat legislators from fleeing the state to break a quorum: 

Dear Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and Speaker Phelan,

As a Texan and a statewide elected official, I was pleased that Governor Abbott had called a special session of the 87th Texas Legislature to address several critical issues that failed to be addressed during the regular session. Chief amongst those issues was election integrity and voting reform legislation which had been named a priority issue by the Governor at the outset of the regular session.

Now, it appears that a large number, if not all, of the Democratic members of the Texas House and some in the Texas Senate are preparing to flee the state in order to break quorum and, once again, deny the people of Texas the opportunity to have legislation passed and signed into law which will give them confidence in the election process in our state and be assured that legally cast votes are counted and illegally cast votes are not.

Those who choose to shirk their constitutionally mandated responsibilities must understand that there will be severe consequences should they take actions which prevent the legislature from doing its job.

That is why I am asking for the following actions to be immediately taken:

First, I am calling on Lieutenant Governor Patrick and Speaker Phelan to immediately place a call on the Texas House and Texas Senate, the doors of both chambers to be locked, and that officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety be ordered to forcibly detain any legislator attempting to leave the House or Senate Chamber and to seek out and arrest any member who has already fled the building.

Secondly, I call on Lieutenant Governor Patrick and Speaker Phelan to immediately strip any member of the Texas House or Senate who knowingly and willfully breaks quorum, or attempts to do so, of any Committee Chairmanship, Vice Chairmanship, or membership in a substantive committee they may hold and to withhold any per diem they may have normally been entitled to receive.

Third, I ask Governor Abbott to consult with the Texas Attorney General and to research other sanctions, legal remedies, and/or violations of state law which may be enforced upon legislators who fail to meet their constitutional obligations and their obligations to the people who elected them.

As I travel across our great state, I am reminded that the people of Texas expect their elected representatives to do their jobs and be on the job and at work when the Texas Legislature is in session. There must be consequences for bad behavior, and I call on each of you to ensure that the planned theatrics by some legislators to deny the will of the majority of Texans are met with firm, swift, and lasting ramifications.

Thank you for your attention to this letter and for your continued service to the people of the State of Texas.

Sincerely,

[signed] Sid Miller

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture

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