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WASHINGTON — Shortly after landing in Washington D.C. in an effort to deny the Texas House a quorum to block a voting restrictions bill, House Democrats indicated they plan to remain out of state until the end of the special legislative session that ends Aug. 6.
Democrats’ Monday departure from the state upends the Legislature's ability to turn any bills into law just days into a 30-day session that was called largely to advance GOP-backed legislation that would enact new restrictions on voting.
Asked by a reporter what the caucus planned to do if Gov. Greg Abbott called another special session for the next day, state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, suggested that was the reason behind why they had decamped to the capital.
“That’s our message to Congress,” said Turner, the Fort Worth Democrat who chairs the House Democratic caucus. “We need them to act now.”
At least 51 of the 67 Democratic members of the Texas House — the number needed to break quorum — fled the state on Monday, most of them boarding two chartered planes that landed in D.C. around 7 p.m. Central time.
Last month, a delegation of Democratic state representatives and senators traveled to the U.S. Capital to advocate for a pair of federal bills. The first would preempt significant portions of the Texas bills and set new federal standards for elections like same-day and automatic voter registration. The second would restore sweeping safeguards for voters of color by reinstating federal oversight of elections in states like Texas with troubling records of discriminating against voters of color.
This time the group was much larger — at least two buses full of members as of Tuesday night — and state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, referred to the expanded numbers as “reinforcements.”
The state legislation currently under consideration resembles the the GOP priority voting bill from the regular legislative session that first prompted Democrats to walk out and break quorum in late May. Republicans’ bills would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting options, enhance access for partisan poll watchers and prohibit local election officials from proactively distributing applications to request mail-in ballots. They also include language to further restrict the state’s voting-by-mail rules, including new ID requirements for absentee voters.
Since the news broke that Democrats were leaving the state, Republicans pounced to characterize them as abandoning their jobs.
"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,” Abbott said in a statement earlier in the day. “As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”
Fellow Republicans from all over the state and the country joined in the criticism.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Turner. “We are doing our job. We were elected to represent our constituents and fight for our constituents' interests. We aren’t going to sit in Austin in the house chamber and watch the Republican majority steamroll the voting rights of our constituents.”
Democratic state Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio said in an interview that she was “definitely” prepared to be out of the state for three weeks as well and packed light.
“It wasn’t even about clothes, it was about let’s do what we need to do to protect our right to vote,” she said. “We can’t go back to the days of old... think about our forefathers who died for us to have the opportunity to vote.”
“What I did, I went into my clothes, and I got all those things that are washable,” she added, when asked how she prepared for such an uncertain trip.
There was a sense Tuesday in this group that Abbott’s threat to cut the salaries of legislative staffers could become reality.
“I told my staff to get ready for unemployment,” said Gervin-Hawkins “OK? Think about it. If you are released from a job beyond your control, you qualify for unemployment.”
“We hope that doesn’t happen,” she added.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, called the bill “toxic piece of legislation.”
“We’re here to fight,” Moody said, referring to Congress. “We just hope we’re not alone.”