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Before Sunday, some Texas Republicans were declaring this legislative session the most conservative in the state’s recent history.
They had notched long-sought breakthroughs expanding gun rights and restricting abortion, and while some argued even more could have been done, few disputed they had ample achievements to tout.
But a massive asterisk fell upon the session for Republicans late Sunday night, when House Democrats broke quorum and killed Senate Bill 7, a GOP priority bill to tighten election laws in the state, which opponents say would have restricted voting rights, particularly for people of color and the elderly and disabled. That move left several other bills that were pending final approval dead on the final day lawmakers could pass legislation, including a bill identified as a priority by Gov. Greg Abbott that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash.
“Texans shouldn’t have to pay the consequences of these members’ actions -- or in this case, inaction -- especially at a time when a majority of Texans have exhibited clear and express support for making our elections stronger and more secure,” House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement.
The Democrats celebrated their victory on Sunday, but that could be short-lived. Republicans are now staring down a guaranteed special session to get the job done on SB 7 — and potentially a host of other issues that could further escalate intraparty tensions.
Democratic leaders said they know Republicans will try to bring the issue back in a special session and are preparing to fight it back again.
“We’re outnumbered. There’s no doubt about it. Republicans are in the majority,” said Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “Democrats are going to continue to use every tool in our toolbox to slow them down, to fight them, to stop them. What that looks like weeks or months down the road, I can’t predict at this point, but we’re going to fight with everything we’ve got.”
SB 7 had been a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott, who named “election integrity” one of his five initial emergency items earlier this year. After the House gaveled out for the night, Patrick didn’t hold back in comments from the Senate dais, criticizing the lower chamber for taking days off near the end of the legislative session as bill-killing deadlines approached.
“I can’t even blame it on the other party for walking out,” said Patrick, a Republican. “They got an opportunity to walk out because of the deadline.”
Revisiting the topic a short time later, Patrick, who’s been increasingly at odds with Phelan as the session wound down, said the “clock ran out on the House because it was managed poorly. That’s the bottom line.”
Phelan, a fourth-term state representative from Beaumont, is in his first session as House speaker.
Even before Sunday night, Patrick and like-minded House Republicans were laying the groundwork to argue the session was not as conservative as it could have been. After three of his priorities died in the House last week, Patrick called for a special session to revive the proposals, including one that would ban transgender student athletes from playing on teams that correspond with their gender identity.
No Republican leader is now in more of a squeeze than Abbott, who on Saturday tweeted that the “most conservative legislative session in a generation is wrapping up.” He will have to decide when to hold a special session and what all to put on the agenda to appease his right flank, just as the statewide primary season is beginning to heat up for the 2022 elections.
“A critical bill like [SB 7] can only fail in a Republican-led chamber when there is a failure of leadership from the Texas governor,” Abbott primary challenger Don Huffines, the former Dallas state senator, said in a statement.
Abbott expressed disappointment that both the sweeping voting bill and bail reform, two of his priorities for the session, had failed to get legislative approval.
“It is deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans that neither will reach my desk. Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas,” Abbott said in a statement. “They will be added to the special session agenda.”
Abbott did not say if he would call lawmakers back for a special session before a planned session in the fall to handle the state’s decennial redrawing of political maps. But he said lawmakers would be expected to have worked out the details to both of those items by the time they arrived for a special session.
The House Republican Caucus, which had fueled the billing of this session as the “most conservative” the chamber has seen, said in a statement that it is “fully committed to taking all necessary steps to deliver on election integrity and bail reform.” Most House Republicans who spoke out Sunday night echoed that sentiment, denouncing Democrats as obstructionists and expressing perseverance for the special session. “Ready to get back to work,” tweeted Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, the House sponsor of SB 7.
But not all House Republicans were as willing to overlook their mishaps. Reps. Bryan Slaton of Royse City and Jeff Cason of Bedford, who regularly test GOP leadership, noted that Republicans had months to pass such an election bill in the House and waited until the last possible day, despite it being well-known that the minority party was dead set against the legislation.
“Democrats can only kill a bill that Republican leadership lets them kill,” Slaton wrote on Facebook.
Democrats said at a news conference Sunday night at Mt. Zion Fellowship Hall in Austin that they had prepared to use procedural tactics to kill SB 7 by running out the clock until midnight, the deadline to accept bills worked out in conference committees. More than 30 Democrats were prepared with questions and points of order to delay the bill’s discussion.
But when they were not allowed to ask questions on the floor or use the delay tactics they had prepared, Democrats resorted to the last tool they had left: breaking quorum.
The tactic is a legislative last resort and has been used rarely in recent memory, most notably in 2003 when Democrats in both chambers left the state to delay votes on redrawing political maps. The Democrats ultimately returned to the Legislature and, after three special sessions called by then-Gov. Rick Perry, passed the redrawn political maps, which cemented GOP dominance in the state.
On Sunday night, Democratic leaders got wind that Republican lawmakers had gathered the necessary 25 signatures to end debate on a bill and call for a vote.
At 10:35 p.m., Turner, the Democratic caucus chair, sent a text to other Democrats to take the keys to their voting machines and discreetly leave the chamber and then the building.
About 10 minutes later, when the House called for a vote on a procedural matter to excuse an absence for Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, lawmakers confirmed that they no longer had a quorum to conduct business.
“We were determined. We know how to talk for a long time when we need to. That’s what we were doing and it was working,” Turner said at the news conference. “They were prepared to cut us off and try to silence us. We were not going to let them do that. And that’s why Democrats used the last tool available to us. We denied them the quorum.”
Democratic lawmakers said they had been frustrated by a session in which GOP leaders had pushed through controversial legislation on social issues. Republicans pushed through permitless carry of handguns, a near-total ban on abortion, penalties for cities that cut police budgets, a proposal targeting the teaching of critical race theory — even a Patrick priority to require that professional sports teams with state government contracts play the national anthem at the start of every game.
“Why is there so much legislation that’s arguably hateful coming to the floor?” Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, told The Texas Tribune. “I’ve been here four sessions. I’ve never experienced a session where so many hateful bills have come to the floor. They always have been at the back of the line.”
Romero said he was also upset by the lack of decorum in the House. Republicans, he said, jeered at Democratic lawmakers and had threatened to call for votes repeatedly throughout the session while the minority party was trying to use legislative procedures to stall on legislation their constituents opposed.
“I don’t blame that on Dade Phelan, but on his lieutenants,” Romero said. “They’re not secretive about it. They’re so disrespectful. And it has been so disrespectful all year long.”
Turner also deflected blame from Phelan and pointed it squarely at Abbott.
“I hold Greg Abbott responsible. He’s the governor of the state of Texas,” he said. “He set in motion this entire process by demanding a vote suppression bill come to his desk. And why is he doing that? He’s doing that because [of] the ‘big lie.’ Because Donald Trump has set this fever upon the Republican Party that the election was stolen.”
Before Sunday, the mood among Republicans was general satisfaction with the session — and among Democrats, downright disgust. The laundry list of conservative priorities at times overshadowed the dual crises that lawmakers were confronted with toward the beginning of the session: the coronavirus pandemic and February winter storm that left millions of Texans without power.
“It’s been a strong session for business, a strong session for pro-life, it’s going to end up a good session for public education, and we had a good budget,” said Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who has served in the Texas House since 1999. “All in all, there’s some things I wish we’d gotten done, but there always is.”
Rep. Ann Johnson of Houston, the only Democrat to flip a House seat last year, had a decisively different take in an interview Friday.
“This has been one of the hardest sessions, and it’s felt painful for me,” Johnson said. “When I talk to my older colleagues, they say this is the worst it’s ever been. And so when you look at what we’ve seen happen, with Democrats being run over on social issues — and social issues that I don’t believe the majority of Texans agree with — it’s been gut-wrenching.”
By Monday morning, Johnson had one less thing to worry about for now.
“I was proud to stand up for our democracy today,” she said in a statement, “and walk out to kill SB 7 with my colleagues.”