Texas Democratic lawmakers who left the state to prevent passage of restrictive voting legislation said Tuesday that it was imperative for Congress to act to ensure federal voting rights because there are limits to their last-ditch effort to stop Republicans.

Standing before the U.S. Capitol, the Democrats were defiant but pragmatic after their second hasty exodus in three months. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) threatened to have them arrested when they return, and the state House passed a motion Tuesday morning that effectively orders state troopers to arrest missing members within state boundaries.

The lawmakers left the state Monday, denying Republicans the required two-thirds attendance level to conduct business and raising doubts about the prospects for passing voting legislation this week. Texas Democratic leaders told reporters Monday night that they plan to stay away from the state until Aug. 7, the scheduled end of the 30-day special session.

Nearly 60 letters were delivered to a Texas clerk Tuesday directing the House to lock the lawmakers’ voting machines and leave them locked until the Democrats return to the state legislature, said state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

“We are living right now on borrowed time in Texas, and we can’t stay here indefinitely to run out the clock to stop Republican anti-voter bills,” state Rep. Rhetta Bowers said at a news conference. “That’s why we need Congress to act now and pass the For the People Act.”

Democratic state lawmakers from Texas, joined by U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey (D-Tex.) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), decried the voting legislation that emerged in their state as well as in other GOP-led states after former president Donald Trump began falsely claiming that he lost the 2020 election to widespread electoral fraud.

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. (The Washington Post)

“We are not going to buckle to the ‘big lie’ in the state of Texas,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D), referring to the false claims about the 2020 election. “The ‘big lie’ that has resulted in anti-democratic legislation throughout the United States. We said no when the ‘big lie’ came to the Capitol in Texas and darkened our door.”

And state Rep. Senfronia Thompson took a jab at lawmakers on the other side of the aisle for their fidelity to the former president.

“These Republicans in this legislature may have changed the Messiah Jesus to Trump, but I haven’t,” she said.

Dozens of Texas Democrats are pressing Congress to pass far-reaching voting rights legislation. But Democratic resistance to scrapping filibuster rules has stalled the sweeping measure in the evenly divided Senate.

Several Texas Democrats described a polite and positive meeting Tuesday afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — albeit one that did not produce any new concrete steps forward.

“Our members who have been working to fight these bills were able to inform him of some of the most egregious provisions in the vote suppression bills that Republicans are trying to pass, so we discussed the urgency of the Senate taking up federal voting rights legislation,” Turner said. “He reiterated his strong support and urged us to stay in the fight.”

At the news conference earlier in the day, several Texas Democrats had called for the Senate to embrace a voting-rights “carveout” to the filibuster. But Turner said the conversation with Schumer “didn’t get into that level of specificity.”

“Leader Schumer made clear passing of the For the People Act and [the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act] later is a top priority for him,” Turner said.

Asked whether Schumer or others made any new pledges to advance the bills, Thompson said, “Not a one.”

“I wish they had,” she added.

Vice President Harris met with many of the Texas Democrats on Tuesday afternoon and thanked them.

“I know what you have done comes with great sacrifice, both personal and political,” she said. “Defending the right to vote is as American as apple pie.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) also was scheduled to talk to the Texas Democrats. Manchin opposes the broad federal voting rights bill and eliminating the filibuster, though he has outlined his wishes on voting measures, raising the possibility of compromise.

Schumer has praised the Texas lawmakers for standing up for the rights of their constituents, many of whom Democrats believe will be left out of the electoral process if this GOP bill becomes law.

“These lawmakers are brave, they’re courageous, and they are simply fighting for the right of every Texan to have the right to vote. What could be more all-American than that?” Schumer said before his meeting. “These folks are going to be remembered on the right side of history. The governor and Republican legislators will be remembered on the dark and wrong side of history.”

In Philadelphia, President Biden assailed GOP efforts to restrict voting access, calling it the biggest threat to American democracy since the Civil War.

“We’ll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up, for God’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote. Have you no shame?” Biden said.

Doggett said Biden can “really play a big role,” and added: “I’d be willing to stay as long as necessary to get this done.”

The election proposals in Texas include restrictions championed by Trump and his allies. The bills, reported out of committee on Sunday, would ban 24-hour voting and end drive-through voting, both of which were used in the state in the 2020 election to help people vote during the coronavirus pandemic. Voting rights advocates noted that voters of color used these programs in disproportionately high numbers.

In May, Texas Democrats staged their first dramatic walkout over the issue, denying the majority-Republican legislature a quorum and forcing an adjournment without a vote on the measure.

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.”

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.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Texas House, only 80 of the 150 members were present. State Rep. Will Metcalf (R) made a motion to call the House, the first action in a chain of events that leads to the missing members being “sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found,” the House rules say, within state boundaries, and brought back to the Capitol.

The motion passed 76 to 4, the doors to the chamber were locked and the names of all present were recorded.

“Anyone who leaves the hall has to have written permission from the speaker,” Phelan said.

Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., one of the four Democrats who were in attendance to vote against the motion, said that he respected his colleagues who left town but that it wasn’t the right move for him.

“Being here is the best course of action I could take,” Morales told reporters in a press room within the locked House chamber Tuesday. “Everyone can fight and fight differently.”

Action in the Texas House ground to a halt Tuesday afternoon. “We are at a standstill,” said Rep. Jim Murphy (R). “Ready to work, but at a standstill.”

The House plans to check for a quorum at 11 a.m. on Wednesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Texas Senate, with nine of the 13 Democrats missing, passed its version of the GOP-backed voting legislation — a measure that eliminates 24-hour and drive-through voting, changes the requirements for voting by mail, and allows poll watchers to be close enough to “hear and see” voters.

“This is so fundamental to our democracy that Gov. Greg Abbott called us back,” said state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R). “Every Texan, each Texan, has the right to vote the way that person wants to vote, without being coerced or having that vote stolen by criminals. Unfortunately, this issue has become bitterly partisan.”

Among the Democratic senators who were absent were Sens. José Menéndez and Roland Gutierrez, who left San Antonio around 6:25 a.m. Tuesday on a Southwest Airlines flight to Atlanta, then another to D.C. As their colleagues in the Texas Senate prepared to convene for a 10 a.m. floor session, the two men were crafting plans for meetings with federal officials.

“We’re not just working on voter suppression,” Menéndez said, adding they were discussing ideas to meet with the U.S. Energy Department on grid-related issues and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “I’m not taking pleasure in this work trip. It is what it is.” He added, “I only brought suits — I didn’t bring any leisure wear.”

A walkout was always on the table during the special session. “It’s a decision we’ve all been discussing the entire time,” Menéndez said. And it wasn’t one that he made lightly.

In 2003, Menéndez was a member of the Texas House when Democrats staged a walkout in protest over redistricting. After the members left, House Republicans issued a “call” on the House, meaning that the Democrats were wanted fugitives who faced arrest if they crossed state lines.

Menéndez and his colleagues went to Ardmore, Okla., but back at his home in San Antonio, Menéndez said, his wife noticed officers following her while driving.

Late Monday, Menéndez was noticeably skittish when reached by The Washington Post.

“Knowing that, I was going to be very cautious,” he said. “I didn’t want my plan to be interrupted.”

Moravec reported from Austin. Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.