Texas Democrats have become outlaws, fleeing the state as Gov. Greg Abbott threatens to arrest and confine them in the latest battle over voting rights.
More than 50 Texas Democrats flew to Washington, D.C., this week, breaking quorum during a 30-day special session of the state Legislature due to end in August, effectively stalling Republican colleagues’ proposed voting restrictions. On Tuesday, they met with Vice President Kamala Harris and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
“We’re buying some time,” Rep. Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic leader, said during a Tuesday briefing at the Capitol, and pleading with congressional Democrats on the eve of President Biden’s speech Tuesday to pass legislation that would protect voting rights nationwide.
Texas Democrats staged a walkout to block the proposed laws last month, prompting the governor to call a special legislative session. Supporters say the laws would safeguard election integrity by banning 24-hour polling places and drop boxes for mailed ballots while empowering partisan poll watchers. Opponents say they would disproportionately limit and discourage voting in communities of color.
Harris applauded the Texas Democrats when she met with them late Tuesday for the second time in less than a month, at the American Federation of Teachers office near the Capitol. She thanked the group and cast them as “fighters” akin to those who fought for the rights of Blacks and women to vote.
“Defending the right to vote is as American as apple pie,” Harris said to applause.
On Tuesday, as opponents of the proposed laws converged on the state Capitol for a second day of protests, including church and union leaders, Republicans passed a motion asking that “the sergeant at arms, or officers appointed by him, send for all absentees… under warrant of arrest if necessary.”
Shortly after the vote, the sergeant at arms locked the chamber doors with four Democrats who did not flee to Washington still inside. Voting mechanisms on the desks of absent Democrats were locked.
But Texas law enforcement lacks the authority to pursue the lawmakers out of state.
Abbott has threatened Democrats with arrest once they return to Texas, which may not be until the current 30-day special session ends in August. Abbott — who is running for reelection next year — appeared on the border late last month with former President Trump and stirred rumors of a potential Republican presidential campaign. This week he said he would continue to call special sessions and confine Democratic lawmakers to the state Capitol in Austin if necessary to force a vote.
“I can and I will continue to call a special session after special session after special session all the way up until election next year. And 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,” Abbott told Austin television station KVUE on Monday. “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.”
In Washington on Tuesday, Texas Democrats struck a defiant tone in the face of Abbott’s threats.
“I looked at the African American Museum and I thought about the struggle that my people fought in this country to get the right to vote. I’m not going to be a hostage while our voters’ rights are being stripped of them,” said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston-area lawmaker who’s both the state’s longest-serving Black and longest serving female legislator.
Thompson noted that it was President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, who shepherded the landmark Voting Rights Act through Congress.
Rep. Rhetta Bowers, whose district is in the Dallas area, said that if Congress doesn’t act again soon, Texas Republicans will likely succeed in passing voting restrictions.
“We can’t stay here indefinitely to run out the clock to stop Republicans’ anti-voter attacks,” she said, adding, “Texas Democrats will do everything in our power to fight back. But we need Congress to act now.”
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the proposed Texas laws “part of a concerted attack on our democracy being advanced in statehouses across the country on the basis of the same repeatedly disproven lies that led to the assault on the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6.”
Jean-Pierre would not say whether Biden would meet with the Texas legislators, but said he “applauds their courage” and that in the administration’s view, the Texas laws are an “assault on democracy.”
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