WASHINGTON, DC -- Democratic state lawmakers from Texas said Wednesday that they are on Capitol Hill to drum up support for federal voting rights legislation amid a boycott of a special session to pass a bill with restrictive elections measures back at home.
State legislators also said they don't plan to travel back to the Lone Star State until they run out the clock on the remainder of their legislative session to prevent the passage of a bill they argue will disproportionately hurt voters of color.
More than 50 Texas Democrats fled the state and flew to Washington, D.C., to boycott the GOP-led legislature's special session, which began last week. According to state rules, the Texas House of Representatives requires two thirds of its 150 members to reach a quorum and conduct business. The Texas House Democratic Caucus said it submitted letters to lock the voting machines of absent members until they return or give permission to unlock them.
But once time elapses, Texas Democrats anticipate Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to keep calling special sessions to address his party's voting bill. Given Democrats' minority status in Texas, state legislators are ramping up significant pressure on congressional Democrats to use all tools at their disposal to advance federal legislation to combat the inevitable voting changes from Republicans in Texas and across the U.S. – including nixing the filibuster in the Senate.
"Our intent is to stay out and kill this bill this session and use the intervening time – I think 24 or 25 days now – before the end of this session to implore the folks in this building behind us to pass federal voting rights legislation to protect voters in Texas and across the country," State Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the state's House Democratic Caucus, said at a press conference with dozens of his colleagues.
The first full day of their prolonged stay out on Tuesday coincided with President Joe Biden's highly anticipated speech on voting rights from Philadelphia. Biden is under immense pressure to deliver on the issue and use his voice and influence more forcefully to move it forward in Congress. He's also facing calls to support ending the filibuster – at least when it comes to voting rights – in a divided 50-50 Senate where Democrats have narrow control.
If the party scrapped the filibuster to pass voting legislation, Democrats would only need a simple majority instead of 60 votes and wouldn't need any GOP support. But a number of moderate Democratic senators have been reluctant to do away with the legislative tactic. All 50 Democrats in the Senate would need to support any filibuster reforms. And while his support is only symbolic, Biden has previously said he doesn't want to do away with it.
Voting legislation has stalled on Capitol Hill for weeks after Senate Republicans blocked an expansive voting and ethics bill known as the For the People Act. Another bill named after the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis that restores parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act also faces an uncertain path and is expected to come up for a vote in the fall. Biden has vowed to sign both bills into law, but it's becoming increasingly unlikely that either will end up on his desk.
In their initial attempt to stop the state legislature from passing Republicans' voting bill, Texas Democrats led a walkout in May during the end of the regular session. Following that action, Abbott called for a special session to address the legislation, which would limit early-voting hours, ban drive-through and 24-hour voting, strengthen protections for poll watchers and tighten vote-by-mail rules.
The special session is set to last another three weeks and Texas Democrats plan to stay out of the state until it concludes. Some state legislators visited D.C. last month to rally more support for federal voting legislation and now the larger group will once again meet with a number of senators and leadership. They're seeking to raise the stakes and push Congress to act before the August recess.
"We need Congress to act now. We got about three weeks until this session is over," Turner said. "The clock is ticking. They got to act before the August recess."
Texas Democrats signaled their support for a suggestion from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina for a "carveout" to nix the 60-vote threshold in the Senate for certain issues like voting rights. But during his Tuesday speech, Biden didn't make any promises when it comes to the filibuster or say how exactly he can move the ball forward amid a stalemate.
"If Mitch McConnell did a carveout for Amy Coney Barrett, then we ought to do a carveout for the Black and Brown people who live in Texas, and that live in Georgia, that live in Florida," said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas, referring to the 2017 rules change by Senate Republicans that allows a Supreme Court justice to be confirmed with only a simple majority vote.
The Texas House of Representatives, meanwhile, convened on Tuesday for the special session without a quorum and voted, 76-4, to compel members who were absent to return to the Texas Capitol. The Texas State Senate also met on Tuesday, but reached a quorum since several Democratic state senators remained in Austin, and passed the controversial state voting restrictions bill with only GOP-majority support.
In the Texas House, Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, read an adopted motion, directing the sergeant-at-arms and any officer appointed by him to "send for all absentees … under warrant of arrest if necessary." But the motion appeared to be more of a symbolic move since Texas law enforcement doesn't have jurisdiction outside of the state, including in Washington, D.C.
While in Washington, the group is meeting with various leaders including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and a number of Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin opposed the current version of the For the People Act, but ultimately voted with Democrats last month after the party forged an agreement on compromise legislation. He has said he also supports the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
But even with Manchin on board, federal legislation is going nowhere in the Senate without 10 Republican votes or a major change to the filibuster.
Republicans in Washington, including Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, used the Texas trip as a way to needle Democrats over their support for filibuster reform since ending the legislative rule would weaken Republicans' leverage in Congress as the minority party.
"I've noticed that the Democrat minority in the Texas legislature is up here today and I think it's quite interesting to see the Democratic majority in the Senate concerned about minority rights in the state Senate in Texas," McConnell said. "I guess if you live long enough, you'll see almost anything around here."