The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas Democrats find voting rights are a tough sell as Capitol Hill turns its focus to Biden’s economic agenda

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks after a meeting with state legislators from Texas on Capitol Hill on July 15.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks after a meeting with state legislators from Texas on Capitol Hill on July 15. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The scores of Texas Democrats who fled Austin this week to block passage of a Republican election law and implore Congress for the passage of new federal voting rights protections arrived on Capitol Hill and quickly earned effusive praise from fellow Democrats.

“They are brave, they are bold, they are courageous,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called the runaway lawmakers “defenders of the Constitution,” while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) hailed them as “freedom fighters.”

But the accolades have not, so far, translated into real progress for the Texas state legislators, who arrived in Washington just as the congressional Democrats they are trying to prod into action on voting legislation have turned their full attention toward a trillion-dollar infrastructure deal and a potentially historic $3.5 trillion expansion of federal social and climate programs.

Out of options in Austin, Texas House Democrats flew to Washington, D.C. on July 12 to press Congress to pass federal voting legislation. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

While many Democrats insist that passing a voting rights bill remains a top priority in the coming weeks — Schumer and others have said “failure is not an option” — momentum on Capitol Hill has palpably shifted away from the voting rights push following a failed test vote last month and toward Democrats’ vast spending plans.

The dynamics were on display Wednesday when President Biden arrived in the Capitol for his first in-person lunch with the Senate Democratic Caucus — a meeting that was largely devoted to the massive multi-trillion-dollar climate and safety-net plan, not to breaking a voting rights stalemate months in the making.

Biden rallies Democrats on Capitol Hill for his spending plans

And on Thursday, a contingent of Texas Democrats emerged from a meeting with one key senator — Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — without securing any new concessions that would allow a voting bill to pass the Senate in the coming weeks.

While all 50 Democrats — including Manchin — voted last month to start debating voting legislation, Republicans blocked the move thanks to the filibuster, the 60-vote supermajority requirement that Manchin and several other Democratic senators are unwilling to weaken.

“Forget the filibuster,” Manchin told reporters afterward, describing a strategy that has yet to attract any Republican support — crafting a voting rights bill more narrowly written than the For the People Act, the catchall legislation that combined minimum voting-access standards with a new public campaign financing system, a mandate for nonpartisan congressional redistricting, a prohibition on voter ID laws and much more.

Despite the lack of visible headway, the Texans remained upbeat Thursday — saying after the meeting that changing Manchin’s views on the filibuster wasn’t their goal, even after their leaders endorsed calls for a “carve-out” exempting voting rights legislation from the supermajority rule.

“Things have to happen at the pace they happen,” said state Sen. Nathan Johnson (D) as he walked out of Manchin’s cramped hideaway office in the Capitol basement. “If a stick breaks, the water goes through all of a sudden. If there’s a break in the logjam up here, I think the voting rights legislation will move. . . . The pressure, we’re hoping, breaks those sticks sooner rather than later.”

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The Texas lawmakers arrived in Washington on Monday after fleeing their home state to deny a House quorum to GOP legislators who are set to enact legislation that would roll back voting access in some large counties home to most of the state’s minority voters and give poll watchers new powers that critics say could encourage voter harassment and intimidation.

The Democratic state legislators have indicated they plan to stay in Washington for nearly a month, until the special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) expires on Aug. 7, using that time to push federal lawmakers to take action on voting rights. Republicans are pressuring them to return home — the state House speaker on Thursday said he’d chartered a plane to fly them all back — and Abbott has said he plans to call another special session if they do not.

“We can’t hold this tide back forever,” state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday. “We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely.”

Multiple Senate Democrats said this week that voting rights remains a priority for their tenuous 50-vote majority. But only a few would say it is the top priority, as others signaled that using their present power — the first consolidated control of the federal government Democrats have enjoyed in a decade — to enact their agenda is a more pressing matter than securing voting rights, and perhaps future majorities.

“It is a priority, and I’ve talked to them, and I know who they are meeting with,” Schumer said of voting rights Thursday. “It’s a very important priority.”

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who was narrowly elected in a special election this year just months before Georgia Republicans passed legislation rolling back voter access, called voting rights a “911 emergency” and “the single most important thing that the Congress and the president can do” on Wednesday after meeting with some of the Texans.

But Warnock, who briefly pressed Biden on voting rights as the two walked out of the Wednesday lunch, insisted that Democrats “can walk and chew gum at the same time” as they pivot toward their economic agenda.

Senate Republicans block debate on elections bill, dealing blow to Democrats’ voting rights push

The Texans, meanwhile, have been careful not to pester their fellow Democrats too directly in the media or in the succession of meetings they have arranged with key officials, including a Tuesday session with Vice President Harris. According to participants, the visiting lawmakers have spent much of the meetings educating federal officials on the proposed Texas voting bill and the threat it represents rather than pressing them on any particular course of action.

“We didn’t ask them to set aside anything — what we want to do, we want to be able to make our case,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D) after the Manchin meeting. “We know infrastructure has been a priority . . . and we recognize that. But we also recognize that we are under the gun in our state, and we are bringing this to their attention.”

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, chair of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus, said Schumer and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) gave her advice — which she declined to disclose — on meeting with other senators who may not be as supportive of their cause. Schumer, she said, told her that their presence alone will help move the political needle.

Meanwhile, other Democrats are turning to other tactics. Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing election matters, will convene a rare field hearing Monday in Atlanta to examine the Georgia voting law.

“We’re going to Georgia for a reason,” Klobuchar said Thursday. “They are up front and center of why we need to get this done. So, no one’s giving up on this. Far from it.”

Opting for a more confrontational approach, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) was arrested by U.S. Capitol Police along with several voting rights activists Thursday during a protest inside the Hart Senate Office Building.

Speakers at a rally beforehand voiced frustration that the Senate has yet to take action and called on Democrats to cast aside the filibuster and push back against the wave of voting restrictions being enacted by Republican legislatures in states across the country.

“The filibuster silences our votes and our voices,” said Deborah Scott, who traveled from Georgia to participate in the protest. “We turned the vote out [in Georgia], and now, to see Congress not fight for our rights, means we had to come here.”

Manchin is not the only Democrat who has resisted changes to the filibuster; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has also publicly opposed changes, and several more senators are quietly skeptical. But Manchin has been especially vocal on the subject and has long been seen as a prime obstacle to any filibuster overhaul.

Still, it remains unclear how the Texans will be able to succeed in convincing any of the holdout senators when months of pressure from their own colleagues and constituents has failed to move them off their positions against scrapping the filibuster.

Some, such as state Rep. Ron Reynolds, are simply warning the senators of grave consequences if they do not act.

“It’s going to take our country back, back to possibly Jim Crow-style laws that are creeping up around the country,” said Reynolds, the vice chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. “I don’t think Sen. Manchin wants to be on the wrong side of history.”

Nicole Asbury, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Vanessa Williams contributed to this report.