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Democratic lawmakers return to the Texas Capitol after weeks of delays

For 38 days, Democrats stayed out of the Texas Capitol to block Republican-backed voting restriction bills.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas House of Representatives reached a quorum on Thursday for the first time in nearly six weeks as House Democrats returned to the state after leaving to prevent the passage of new voting restrictions.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan told members, "It's time to get back to the business of the people of Texas."

A total of 99 lawmakers were present in the House chamber, with 49 Democratic lawmakers still absent. For 38 days, Democrats stayed out of the Texas Capitol to block Republican-backed voting restriction bills. House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 are two similar bills that seek to reshape how elections are conducted in the state. 

The bills would ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, expand poll watchers' access at polling locations, bar election officials from sending vote by mail ballot applications to voters who did not initially request one and set new ID requirements for Texans voting by mail.

The voting restrictions legislation first took shape in Senate Bill 7. The bill was introduced during the spring regular session and would have enacted the same provisions seen in Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3. 

In the waning hours of the regular session, Democrats staged their first quorum break by leaving the House chamber and depriving it of a two-thirds majority presence. In doing so, the House was unable to further conduct legislative business, effectively preventing a final vote on Senate Bill 7. 

After the Democrats' action, Governor Greg Abbott pledged to call a special session and recall lawmakers to pass the bills. Democrats went to the nation's capital on an invitation from Democratic lawmakers in Congress who applauded them for their action. While in Washington D.C., the lawmakers met with Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They also met with West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who is seen among Democrats as a key person to passing sweeping federal voting rights legislation.    

Making good on his promise, Abbott called the first special session on July 8. Voting reform was not the only thing he set on lawmakers' agenda. The first special session included banning transgender youths' ability to play on school sports teams that align with their gender identity, the alleged censorship of people on social media, the teaching of critical race theory in Texas schools and border security.

From the first day of the first special session, Republicans moved quickly to resurrect Senate Bill 7 in House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1. On July 12, Democrats staged their second quorum break. Over 50 Democratic lawmakers left the Capitol and flew back to Washington on a chartered jet. While there, the Texas lawmakers continued the work they began earlier in the summer, pressuring Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act.

Texas Democrats believed that voting legislation passed at the federal level would prevent Texas from enacting laws they saw would make it harder to vote. The possibility of Congress acting dissipated as both chambers emptied for their summer recess. 

Back in Texas, House Republicans voted to evoke a procedural move known as the “call of the house.” The move allowed for House members to be locked inside the chamber and paved the way for the sergeant-at-arms to appoint Texas law enforcement to arrest absent lawmakers and return them to the capital. Being in Washington and outside of Texas’ jurisdiction, the Democrats did not face an immediate threat of arrest. 

During the first special session, the Texas Senate continued working, passing their versions of an election reform bill, Senate Bill 1, and a bill banning transgender youth from participating on the team of their choice, Senate Bill 2. However, with a quorum lacking in the opposite chamber, those Senate bills could not be debated or voted on in the House. 

Democrats, through their quorum break, successfully brought the first special session to an end in August without a single bill being sent to the governor. Just before the end of the session, Governor Abbott called for a second special session, making good on another promise of his to continue calling lawmakers back to Austin until a voting restrictions bill was passed.

At the onset of a second special session, Democrats outside of the state began challenging efforts to arrest them and compel a quorum. Twenty-two House Democrats filed a class-action suit against Governor Abbott and Phelan, accusing them of violating their constitutional rights to free speech and attempting to arrest them without cause. 

In another case, 19 Democrats filed a complaint with a Travis County District Court seeking injunctive relief from the “call of the house” order and arrest. The judge issued a temporary restraining order in that case, blocking the arrest of the lawmakers. Days later, Abbott and Phelan filed an emergency motion for mandamus relief with the Texas Supreme Court against the restraining order. The high court issued a stay on the order and eventually granted the emergency motion, ruling that the plain language of the Texas Constitution allows for lawmakers to be arrested and returned to the capital to compel a quorum.

House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 was re-filed for the second special session. While House Bill 3 has been stalled due to the lack of quorum, Senate Bill 1 has made waves of its own. Last week, the bill left its committee and arrived on the Senate floor on Aug. 11. After a lengthy partisan debate, Carol Alvarado, a Democratic state Senator from Houston, launched a filibuster that lasted 15 hours. During that time she was unable to drink, lean on her desk or speak off-topic from the bill.

“Senate Bill 1 slowly, but surely, chips away at our democracy. It adds, rather than removes, barriers for Texas seniors, persons with disabilities, African Americans, Asian and Latino voters from the political process,” said Alvarado.

Once the filibuster was over, Bryan Hughes, Republican State Senator from Tyler and the author of Senate Bill 1, defended his bill and urged for its passing. 

“This is a good bill, common-sense reforms, easy to vote, hard to cheat…” said Huges closing on his bill. 

Senate Bill 1 passed on a party-line vote, 18 to 11.

On Thursday, once quorum was restored to the Texas House, Senate Bill 1 was sent to the House Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies. 

The House will reconvene on Monday. With a long and historic moment of dysfunction at the capital seemingly coming to an end, it is yet to be noticed how either party will continue working with one another and if another quorum break is still on the table.

Follow Kirk McDaniel on Twitter

Categories: Civil Rights Government Law Politics

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