The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas governor says Democratic lawmakers who left state to stop passage of voting restrictions could face arrest when they return

Texas Democratic leaders on July 12 vowed to stay away from the state until the special session called by Republicans to take up new voting restrictions ends. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democratic lawmakers in Texas fled the state on Monday, potentially torpedoing an ongoing special session called by Republicans to take up new voting restrictions and drawing threats of arrest by Gov. Greg Abbott.

At least 50 House Democrats landed in Washington late Monday. The exodus denies Republicans the required two-thirds attendance level to conduct business, calling into doubt whether plans to take up voting legislation this week could proceed.

Speaking to reporters at Dulles International Airport, Texas Democratic leaders vowed to stay away from the state until Aug. 7, when the 30-day special session would end.

“We are determined to kill this bill,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said.

In a statement, Turner and other leaders also pledged to pressure Congress to pass new federal voting protections.

“We are now taking the fight to our nation’s Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas,” Turner and four other top Democrats said in the statement. “We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans — and all Americans — from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”

Abbott said Monday that the Democrats could face arrest for the quorum-busting maneuver when they return to the state, adding that he plans to continue to call new special sessions until the legislature takes up the voting bills and other measures.

“So if these people want to be hanging out wherever they’re hanging out on this taxpayer-paid junket, they’re going to have to be prepared to do it for well over a year,” the governor told Austin’s KVUE-TV. “As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done.”

Texas Democrats block restrictive voting bill by walking off the floor to deny GOP-majority House a quorum

The move came a day before President Biden travels to Philadelphia to pitch his administration’s efforts to protect voting rights amid escalating tensions with civil rights leaders concerned about a nationwide push for new restrictions by Republican leaders — and about stalled efforts to pass federal legislation.

Republicans in Texas quickly condemned Democrats’ actions — and promised to press on with their legislative agenda. State Sen. Charles Schwertner said Democrats would face blowback for “abdicating” their responsibilities in Austin.

“The work of the people of Texas needs to get done,” he said. “They need to come back. They need to argue these very important issues in their respective chambers, vigorously argue it. But in the end, it needs to be settled here, where they are elected to serve.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) vowed in a tweet to take up voting legislation Tuesday in the Senate, where he serves as presiding officer, notwithstanding what he called the House Democrats’ decision to “abandon” their constituents.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R), who can call for the arrest of the lawmakers, said in a statement Monday that he would “use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum” — though it was not immediately clear what he could do with so many Democrats outside the state.

One Democratic state senator, Royce West, conceded in an interview that there is no long-term solution to block voting legislation, given the Republican majorities in both chambers. “We’re buying time right now, that’s what we’re doing,” West said. “We’re hoping that something gets done at the national level.”

Phelan also took a shot at Democrats’ use of “private jets” to travel to Washington. One House Democrat, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, interviewed from a refueling stop on an airport tarmac in Memphis, confirmed that the lawmakers had taken two private 30-seat Embraer jets out of Austin and were scheduled to land around 8 p.m. Eastern time at Dulles in the Washington suburbs.

Fischer said most of the lawmakers had gathered Monday morning at a local union hall near the Austin airport, boarded a couple of coach buses and headed to the private air terminal. He said the trip amounted to an enormous sacrifice for many of the Democrats, some of them with health problems, some single parents of young children, some of them in fear of losing their jobs.

“The most important text I received today was an ‘I love you’ text from my oldest daughter, Francesca,” who is 12, Fischer said. He said the trip was necessary to show the country, and Congress, the threat to voting rights posed in Texas.

“This is not a vacation,” he said. “This is not a junket. I don’t want a single U.S. senator to go home for the August recess thinking that everything is completely fine with voting rights in America. We’re here to present the case that it is not.”

One Democrat with knowledge of the day’s events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said the use of the planes was donated to the Texas House Democratic Caucus and would appear on disclosure reports next month.

The lawmakers were told before the start of the special session to be prepared to travel, the person said, and no end date has been set for their trip.

The legislature convened Thursday for a special session called by Abbott to enact a laundry list of conservative priorities that failed to pass during the regular session, which ended dramatically in late May when House Democrats walked out of the state Capitol to block similar voting legislation.

Abbott quickly promised to revisit that issue and others in a special session, including measures to limit transgender athletes’ participation on youth sports teams and beef up border security. The session opened last week, and Republicans have filed election bills in both chambers that include many of the same voting provisions they sought to enact earlier in the year.

Democrats have made clear that they were considering all options to block legislation again this time. But their gambit is more complicated during a special session that is scheduled to stretch until early August; on the day of their walkout in late May, Republicans faced a midnight deadline to approve legislation and were abruptly forced to adjourn after the Democrats left.

The new election proposals include a number of restrictions championed by former president Donald Trump. The measures would ban several election programs implemented last year to help people vote during the coronavirus pandemic, including drive-through voting and 24-hour and late-night voting. Voting rights advocates noted that voters of color disproportionately used these programs.

Multiple House Democrats and members of their staffs did not respond to phone calls or text messages. Last week, Turner said of the legislation, “It’s based on a lie that there was rampant fraud in our elections, and on the ‘big lie’ that Donald Trump actually won the last election.” It was Turner who urged his colleagues to walk out of the chamber May 30 to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to take action on the election bill. “That’s what this is all about — so they can curry favor with Donald Trump and his supporters,” Turner said. “That’s exactly what’s going on here.”

Republican legislative leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Some Texas Senate Democrats also flew to D.C. on Monday, according to a Democratic official with knowledge of their plans, but it is not clear if enough left the state to break the quorum in that chamber. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D) said in an interview at the Texas Capitol that he opposed a walkout, which in the past has backfired and cost some Democrats their seats.

“For me, I would rather stay and fight on, especially on the Senate side,” he said, noting that in 2003, he was among 11 Democratic senators who left the state during a redistricting battle. The group spent 45 days in New Mexico, but eventually the legislation they opposed passed.

“It’s the only kind of action that can be taken by a minority party,” he said. “But I don’t have good memories of what happened back then.”

Aside from the lawmakers’ empty chairs in offices and in committee hearings, there was little sign that anything was amiss Monday. State troopers roamed the halls and grounds as usual.

The halls of the Capitol extension were mostly empty Monday, a stark change from the weekend, when hundreds waited their turn to speak to lawmakers about the elections bills.

Elsewhere throughout the Capitol, tourists milled about, seemingly unaware of the exodus, perusing the historic portraits on the walls and marveling at the ornate rotunda. Tour guides shepherded groups of people around the cavernous pink granite building, stopping for visitors to snap selfies with their phones.

Genesis Galindo, 17, lives in Houston but drove to Austin with her dad and three younger brothers Monday to tour the building on their own. Some in the family had been before on school trips, but Genesis had never been inside.

Interpreting for her father, Genesis said they weren’t too concerned about the missing lawmakers or the pending elections legislation.

“We just wanted to know the history,” she said, staring up at the five-pointed star and letters “TEXAS” on the ceiling well above her head. “I just wanted to know more.”

The start of the special session coincided last week with a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, where Trump spoke on Sunday — and repeated his unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him. No evidence has emerged that widespread fraud tainted the 2020 election.

CPAC showcases resonance of Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election

Moravec reported from Austin. Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Nicole Asbury contributed to this report.