The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas House speaker signs arrest warrants for Democrats who broke quorum over voting restrictions

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, right talks to fellow Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen in the House chamber at the Capitol in Austin on Aug. 6, 2021. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

AUSTIN — Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) escalated a showdown with Democratic lawmakers who broke quorum for the third time over voting rights, signing arrest warrants Tuesday that a spokesman said would be delivered "for service" Wednesday morning.

The move followed approval of a House motion to send for absent members, which enabled Phelan to issue the warrants. The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday also stayed a trial court judge’s ruling that would have protected absent Democrats from arrest.

Phelan spokesman Enrique Marquez said warrants were signed for 52 Democrats who failed to return during the fourth day of the House’s second special session, leaving the chamber eight members short of a quorum. In the first special session, Phelan signed a warrant for only one member — Rep. Phil Cortez (D) — who fled to Washington with other Democrats, returned to Austin where he checked in on the floor, then left again for D.C.

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)

While lawmakers would not be jailed if arrested, they may be brought into the Capitol by law enforcement once the warrants are delivered to the House sergeant-at-arms to be served.

It is unclear exactly how many House Democrats have returned to Texas since 57 fled to Washington in mid-July in an exodus that again blocked passage of new voting restrictions. In Washington, the Democrats advocated for federal voting rights protections in the U.S. Senate.

In anticipation of a possible Senate vote on a narrower elections-and-ethics bill, 26 of the Texas Democrats have vowed to remain in Washington “for as long as Congress is working and making progress” on the issue of voting rights, keeping themselves outside the reach of Texas law enforcement.

State Rep. Celia Israel (D) returned to her home in Austin but not to the House floor. She said Tuesday night that she did not fear being arrested — but acknowledged that the state chamber was in uncharted waters.

“I think they’re bluffing. Do they really want to arrest a woman of color?” Israel said in a phone interview. “They’re just thumping their chests.”

Asked whether she would be on the House floor Wednesday morning, Israel responded, “Hell no.” She said a legal team was working on the House Democrats’ case, with “punching and counterpunching happening by the hour.”

In a session that can last up to 30 days, Israel said, “every day that we don’t have to deal with these far-right policies is a good day.”

Quorum has been broken previously, but never in Texas have lawmakers had to be rounded up and taken to the House or Senate chambers by law enforcement, Israel said.

“We’ve never been down this road before,” she said.

State Rep. Mary González, a Democrat who returned to the House floor, said she hopes Republicans do not move forward with an effort to arrest her colleagues.

“In recent times, the Texas House has had some difficulties,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m hoping that we don’t get to a place where we do arrest warrants, because I think that’s another step in changing the culture of the Texas House. I’m not sure that’s a direction that would be most helpful in this moment in time.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Tuesday was the fifth day of the special legislative session. In fact, it was the fourth day.

Viebeck reported from Washington.