The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas House reaches quorum after Democrats had blocked voting bill for weeks by leaving state

The rotunda at the Texas Capitol in Austin. (Eric Gay/AP)

AUSTIN — The Texas House reached a quorum Thursday for the first time since July, clearing the way for new voting restrictions to pass after a record-breaking Democratic boycott had stalled the bill for weeks, creating a standoff with Republicans who sought the arrest of absent members.

Thursday’s session effectively ended the months-long Democratic protest over the voting measure — at least for now. To stop the bill from advancing, Democrats staged a walkout in May and a mass exodus to Washington in July, breaking the record for longest quorum break in Texas history and forcing Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to order a second special session.

The House had a quorum as of 6:13 p.m. local time after several more Democrats returned to the floor. House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) gaveled the session to order and welcomed one of the Democrats — Rep. Garnet Coleman — by name, inviting him to deliver the opening prayer.

The majority-Republican chamber quickly referred the voting-restrictions bill to committee, bringing the measure one step closer to passage. Abbott listed elections policy among the 17 issues to be addressed during the second special session, which can last up to 30 days.

“Members, this has been a very long summer. We’ve been through a lot,” Phelan said before the House adjourned at 6:20 p.m. “I appreciate the members who made quorum today. It’s time we get back to the business of the people of Texas.”

Phelan announced that the House would adjourn until Monday at 4 p.m., and members applauded.

It was not immediately clear on Thursday that a quorum would be reached. The presence of 99 members was required — down from 100 earlier this summer after two vacancies left the House with fewer sitting members.

Democratic Texas legislators spent most of July in D.C. trying to persuade Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation. (Video: Rhonda Colvin, Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

House members fell silent as three Democrats entered the House floor at 5 p.m. local time. Coleman, in a wheelchair, was accompanied by Reps. Armando Walle and Ana Hernandez.

The three Houston-area Democrats released a joint statement citing the state’s covid-19 surge as schools are reopening as their reason for returning.

“We are proud of the heroic work and commitment we and our fellow Democratic caucus members have shown in breaking quorum in May and again over the summer,” the trio stated. “We took the fight for voting rights to Washington, D.C. and brought national attention to the partisan push in our state to weaken ballot access. Our efforts were successful and served as the primary catalyst to push Congress to take action on federal voter protection legislation. Now, we continue the fight on the House Floor.”

“COVID-19 is ravaging our state and overwhelming our health care system worse than at any other point during this pandemic,” the statement continued. “State and local officials are sprinting to protect the health and well-being of students, staff, and families returning to school, while also contending with mixed and contradictory messages from state leadership. … It is time to move past these partisan legislative calls, and to come together to help our state mitigate the effects of the current COVID-19 surge.”

In a dramatic scene that lasted more than two hours, lawmakers were not permitted to leave the chamber as they waited for the arrival of additional members until quorum was at last reached.

Rep. Jim Murphy, chair of the House Republican Caucus, said he had expected a quorum to show up on Thursday partly out of peer pressure from other lawmakers.

“People have been burning up the phone wires for the last six weeks,” Murphy said. “The effort never stopped.”

Murphy said the House should allow time for public comment on the legislation.

“I’m hoping that with all major bills, we have public testimony and give people a chance,” Murphy said.

Viebeck reported from Washington.