Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
WASHINGTON — It appears likely that not enough Democrats will show up for the Texas House to conduct business when a second special legislative session convenes Saturday.
Some of the more than 50 Democratic representatives who fled Texas to foil the first special session began trickling out of their Washington, D.C., hotel and heading home Friday. But 27 members have committed to staying in the nation’s capital. At the same time, Democrats were working to confirm that at least 50 members will pledge to not return to the House floor on Saturday even if they are back in Texas.
If that happens, the chamber would again be deprived of a quorum to conduct business for at least a few days. And it could set up a showdown over whether House Speaker Dade Phelan has the authority, and political will, to compel Democratic representatives in Texas to show up at the Capitol.
On Friday evening, 22 House Democrats filed a federal lawsuit alleging that GOP officials' efforts to bring them home for a special legislative session infringed on their constitutional rights.
The ongoing absences would further delay any consideration of the 17-item agenda Gov. Greg Abbott has set for the 30-day special session, including a contentious voting bill, which Republicans have vowed to pass into law, that motivated Democrats to leave the state last month. Two-thirds of the 150 member chamber must be present to conduct business. One seat is currently vacant.
“If you’re looking for us to telegraph exactly what we’re going to do over the next couple days, we’re not going to do that at this time,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic caucus chair, said earlier in the day. “The governor would love us to do that, but we’re not going to.”
The House Democratic caucus would not confirm any details about its next move as of Friday evening after marking the last day of the first special session that was derailed after 57 members broke quorum.
The number of Democrats actually in Washington had appeared to dwindle to about 40 members over the last few days. But with 27 Democrats planning to stay behind, even some of the Democrats seen departing from their hotel in Washington on Friday indicated the House floor may not be their destination.
“My kid and I have done our time in the big city,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, as she entered the hotel’s parking garage to collect the rental car she would be driving out of the capital.
Zwiener had traveled to Washington with her young daughter on the flights Democrats chartered to make their escape in early July. But she was unwilling to risk exposing her daughter, who is too young to be vaccinated, to COVID-19 on a commercial flight.
“Where we’re headed is between me and the steering wheel,” Zwiener told The Texas Tribune.
While standing outside of a car into which her luggage was loaded, Dallas Democrat Toni Rose said she was simply changing hotels. State Rep. Alex Dominguez, D-Brownsville, was also spotted leaving the hotel with his luggage in hand.
It remains unclear how far Phelan will be willing to go to cobble together enough members to reach a quorum. After Democrats decamped to Washington in July, House Republicans voted to issue what’s known as a “call of the House” to regain quorum and send law enforcement after them. Because Democrats were beyond the state lines, Texas law enforcement lacked the jurisdiction to wrangle the Democrats. This time around, a large number of Democratic members could presumably be within the state’s boundaries.
“With a second special session beginning tomorrow, the Texas House remains committed to fulfilling its responsibilities as soon our Democratic colleagues return from Washington or from their vacations abroad,” Phelan said in a statement Friday, referencing two House Democrats who broke quorum but reportedly went missing from the nation’s capital to travel to Portugal.
The GOP-backed voting bill in question would ban local voting options meant to expand voting access, enhance access for partisan poll watchers, further restrict the voting-by-mail process and establish new rules — and possible penalties — for those who help voters cast their ballots.
Back home, Democrats remain outnumbered to vote down the bill, which they — along with a collection of voting rights groups, civil rights attorneys and advocates for people with disabilities — oppose because they say it could further heighten barriers for marginalized voters.
House Republicans, who have called the measure a boost for “election integrity,” indicated Friday they expect their deliberations during the second special session to closely align with their proposals from before the Democrats left the state.
That commitment will likely serve as fodder for the House Democrats who have vowed to extend their time in Washington to continue pressing for congressional action on federal voting rights legislation that would preempt much of Texas Republicans’ proposals. Democrats selected the capital as their destination to take up that work, staging a boisterous lobbying effort over the last few weeks that was capped by some movement in the U.S. Senate to move forward with an election bill.
“If Congress is in session, we’re in session,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said earlier in the day. “Our job is here, and we will have a significant number of members staying here and waiting day by day, engaging day by day, finishing the fight.”
James Barragán contributed to this report.
Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news, curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Learn more.