Texas Democrats who hurriedly fled to Washington to block sweeping new election laws back home acknowledged Tuesday they can't stay away forever and urged Congress to act on voting rights, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return.
As Democrats gathered at the U.S. Capitol, Republicans in the unusually skeletal Texas House of Representatives authorized finding and bringing back more than 50 lawmakers "under warrant of arrest if necessary." However, state troopers have no jurisdiction beyond Texas, making it unclear what if any actions would immediately be taken. A House Democrat who stayed behind said it was his understanding was that officers would search for his absent colleagues in Texas, even if it's known they're in Washington.
Abbott has already threatened Democrats with arrest once they come back home, which may not be until the current 30-day special session ends in August. Though that would successfully stymie the GOP's current effort, Abbott has vowed to keep trying until the 2022 elections if necessary.
In Washington, the Democrats pressured President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level while rejecting the idea of returning to Texas anytime soon, promising to "stay out and kill this bill."
State Rep. Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic leader, predicted their efforts would ultimately be futile unless congressional Democrats take bolder action to overcome a Senate Republican blockade of their sweeping voting bill. The legislation, known as the For the People Act, would create national standards for voting that could roll back some restrictions that have been approved or are advancing in the Republican-led states, including Texas.
"We can't hold this tide back forever. We're buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely," he said.
The move by Republicans was expected after most Texas House Democrats boarded private planes Monday to deny Republicans the quorum necessary to conduct business — namely, passing one of America's most restrictive voting measures. Other lighting-rod conservative issues that Abbott put on the agenda — including how race is taught in schools and new abortion restrictions — were also shelved with the Legislature now at a standstill.
"A sergeant-at-arms and any officers appointed by him are directed to send for all absentees whose attendance is not excused, for the purpose of securing and maintaining their attendance, by warrant of arrest if necessary," Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said.
Shortly after the vote, sergeant-at-arms in the House locked the chamber doors. Four Democrats who did not flee to Washington were among the lawmakers still inside, while the voting mechanisms on the desks of absent Democrats were locked.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees state troopers and the Texas Rangers, did not comment after the remaining House members approved the measure 76-4.
State Rep. Eddie Morales, one of four Democrats who stayed behind, said it his understanding that troopers would not leave Texas.
"I was told they will go to your home back in your district, they will go to your place of work, they will got to your apartment in Austin or wherever you live close by when you're in session. And also family and friends that they may know of," he said.
Despite the exodus by Democrats, Abbott has said Republicans will not be deterred.
"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," Abbott told Austin television station KVUE.
The cross-country exodus was the second time that Democratic lawmakers have staged a walkout over the voting overhaul, a measure of their fierce opposition to proposals they say will make it harder for young people, people of color and people with disabilities to vote. Like last month's effort, there remains no clear path for Democrats to permanently block the voting measures.
Biden was 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 Texas legislation would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban drop boxes for mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers. Republicans say the measures are needed to fight fraud. Democrats counter that fraud is very rare and the bills target their supporters.
The measures are part of 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. 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.
The state has a history of attention-getting political tactics. Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, last fled the state in 2003 to thwart a redistricting plan. That year, troopers went to Ardmore, Oklahoma, and asked them to come home on a plane sent by the then-Republican House speaker. But they were unable to arrest the lawmakers without a warrant issued by Oklahoma authorities, and the lawmakers refused the troopers' request.
Democrats ultimately lost that fight, with the GOP passing new voting maps.
Slodysko reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno contributed to this report.