Texas state House Democrats who fled the state to block a Republican elections bill pleaded with Congress to act on voting rights at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, with the escapees hammering one message: Time is running short on their delay tactics.
Scores of Democratic state legislators fled Texas on Monday, denying Republicans a quorum in the state House and preventing them from passing new legislation that would bar certain voting practices used in heavily Democratic counties in 2020 and tighten the rules for mail voting, among other changes.
But the Texas Democrats say they can only delay Republican majorities in their state legislature for so long, and if their party truly wants to back their fight over voting in Texas, they say the pressure is on Democratic senators — and President Joe Biden — to act with federal legislation.
“We have a short window here,” state House Democratic caucus chair Chris Turner told reporters at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol. “We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all our federal leaders to use that time wisely.”
It is the second time in as many months that Turner and other Texas Democrats have traveled to Washington to deliver that message — and it didn’t work last time. All 50 Senate Democrats voted to advance their signature federal elections bill in late June, but a united Republican conference blocked the bill from consideration.
Now, facing promises of their arrest should they return to Texas, Texas Democrats are hoping their call for federal action inspires more urgency than their trip one month ago — or at least raises the stakes of the fight in the minds of voters.
“We went into this eyes wide open, we know exactly what will happen [in Texas],” Turner said. “What our message is is very simple … our intent is to stay out and kill this bill this session, and use the intervening time” to lobby Congress for federal voting rights legislation.
Meanwhile, furious state Republican leaders blasted the Democrats for leaving and laid out potential consequences for them when they do return.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a two-term Republican, said on Fox News Monday night that the Democrats would be arrested and held in the state Capitol upon their return so that they could vote on the elections bill and other legislation.
“Once they step back into the state they will be arrested and brought back to the Capitol and we will be conducting business,” Abbott told Fox News during an interview.
The Texas state House on Tuesday voted to send for the members who left for D.C. and get them to come back, though attempts to bring back state legislators who fled to deny a quorum in previous years fell flat because Texas police officers’ jurisdiction ends at the state’s borders.
The Texas Democrats are urging the Senate to pass the For the People Act — a sweeping piece of legislation that would add several new federal mandates for state voting rules, like requiring no-excuse absentee voting and in-person early voting, among many other provisions — and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore a key component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But the former does not have the support of the entire Democratic caucus in the Senate, and Republicans could filibuster both pieces of legislation even if Democrats united around them.
Some Democrats, including both Texans and national figures like House Majority Whip James Clyburn, have called for a voting rights carve-out from the constraints of the filibuster — along the lines of the current exemptions that don’t allow filibustering judicial nominees. But a handful of Senate Democrats have publicly said they wouldn’t support that change, either.
Biden, for his part, called for the Senate to pass the two voting bills in a speech on voting rights in Philadelphia. But he did not mention the filibuster, disappointing activists who hoped he would back new modifications to the Senate rules.
Members of the Texas Democratic delegation — who huddled in the basement cafeteria of one of the House office buildings after arriving at the Capitol — met with a handful of senators on Tuesday, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, according to a schedule reviewed by POLITICO. A spokesperson for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said his office and the Texas lawmakers are finding time to meet while they are in Washington.
Manchin remains the lone Senate Democratic holdout on the For the People Act, calling for a smaller package, and he has publicly resisted a call to change the filibuster. During Texas Democrats’ June trip to Washington, some state lawmakers met with Manchin’s staff, though not with him.
Democrats also insist that the June filibuster of the For the People Act is not the end of the conversation. “What happened in late June, where not a single Republican would vote to even debate Sen. Manchin’s proposal, was just the starting gun. There’s going to be lots more things we pursue,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at a press conference before he met with the Texans.
Any sort of compromise also looks unlikely in Texas.
Speaking first in Spanish and then in English, state Rep. Rafael Anchía, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said Democrats had offered to work on bipartisan legislation with Republicans in Texas but had been rebuffed before moving to block the GOP bill.
“When you start the process in such a coercive way, when you say, ‘I am going to be the absolute ruler of the state of Texas and defund the legislative branch,’ you have poisoned the entire process,” Anchía said.
Meanwhile, Abbott added on Texas radio station KFYO that Democrats in state leadership positions who broke quorum “should be losing their job.”
Texas Democrats made headlines in May for breaking quorum and abandoning the state House floor to block the new elections bill in the last hour before the legislative session closed. The state legislature opened a special session centering voting limitations and other measures last week.
Ultimately, the Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans, and they hoped to gain leverage to start negotiations by leaving the state and breaking quorum. But Abbott said they will not get concessions upon returning.
Myah Ward and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.