AUSTIN, Texas (NewsNation Now) — Democrats in the Texas Legislature on Monday left the state in a second revolt against a GOP overhaul of election laws, creating another dramatic showdown over voting rights in America.
Private planes carrying a large group of Democrats took off from an airport in Austin to Washington, D.C.
The group left town just days before the Texas House of Representatives was expected to give early approval to sweeping new voting restrictions in a special legislative session. Hours after they took off, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told an Austin television station he would keep calling special sessions through next year if necessary, and raised the possibility of Democrats facing arrest upon returning home.
By leaving, Democrats again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after their walkout in the state House of Representatives thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas — including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.
It marks the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, have crossed state lines to break quorum.
“This is a now-or-never for our democracy. We are holding the line in Texas,” said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer. “We’ve left our jobs, we’ve left our families, we’ve left our homes. Because there is nothing more important than voting rights in America.”
It was not immediately clear how many of the 67 Democrats in the Texas House left, but party leaders said it would be enough to bring the Legislature to a halt.
The decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure on President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level. Biden is set to deliver a major address on the issue Tuesday in Philadelphia, after facing growing criticism for taking what some on the left call too passive a role in the fight.
The lawmakers are expected to meet with Democrats across Washington. But a White House official said there are no current plans for a White House visit.
The drastic move lays bare how Democrats are making America’s biggest red state their last stand against the GOP’s rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.
Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan promised to use “every available resource” to secure a quorum. He did not elaborate, but some House Republicans signaled they would take action when the chamber reconvenes Tuesday. When Democrats fled the state two decades ago — in a failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps — state troopers were deployed to bring them back.
Over the weekend, Texas Republicans began advancing new election bills in the Legislature that also bring back provisions to ban drive-thru voting, add new voter ID requirements to absentee ballots and prohibit local elections officials from proactively sending mail-in ballot applications to voters.
A first key vote on the new measures had been expected this week, hastening Democrats’ scramble to leave town.
But this time could carry more risk, and still no guarantee of victory in the long run.
Abbott, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has demanded new election laws in Texas, could keep calling 30-day special sessions until a bill is passed.
Staying away and grinding the Legislature to a halt for an extended time could also carry repercussions in next year’s midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats are already expecting a difficult cycle in 2022, particularly with Republicans set to begin drawing new voting maps this fall that could cement their majorities.
Adding to the fresh anger, a Houston man who gained attention last year after waiting more than six hours to cast a ballot was arrested on illegal voting charges, and put in jail one day before the special session began Thursday. Attorneys for Hervis Rogers say the 62-year-old did not know that his being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he wasn’t allowed to vote.
How Republicans respond next will be a major test of their resolve.
Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan told NewsNation affiliate KXAN last week that “all options are on the table” if Democrats revolt a second time but did not elaborate. When Democrats last fled the state two decades ago — in an ultimately failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps — state troopers were deployed to try bringing them back.
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the author of both GOP attempts to pass election changes in Texas, said over the weekend that the legislation had become “bitterly partisan.” He defended the new version, which leaves out contentious attempts to ban Sunday morning early voting and make it easier for judges to overturn an election.
“Your ballot is sacrosanct,” Hughes said while introducing the bill Saturday. “Everything else in the election process should be bathed in sunshine.”
Vice President Kamala Harris applauded Texas Democrats for their “courage and commitment” before they boarded the flight. Back in Texas, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signaled that he would still try to pass a voting bill as early as Tuesday in the Senate. It was unclear whether Democrats in that chamber would continue showing up.
Last week, Harris announced $25 million in new spending by the Democratic National Committee on actions to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden and his team are stressing ongoing legal efforts to safeguard voting rights. They’ve also promised a major legislative push after Senate Republicans blocked a sweeping election overhaul last month. The president has told reporters he plans on “speaking extensively” on voting rights and that he would be “going on the road on this issue.”
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.