The Texas House is starting off on a new foot on the contentious elections proposal that blew up the regular legislative session.
As a special session reviving the Republican-priority bill got underway Thursday, there were ample signs that the lower chamber was taking a fresh approach to the legislation, at least procedurally. The bill has a new author who is moving early to get colleagues’ input, and it is going through a new committee that House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) says he created to bring more diverse perspectives to the issue.
The attempt at a reset comes as House Democrats have said repeatedly they plan to fight the legislation at every opportunity and that tactics such as leaving the state to again break quorum are still on the table. In the final hours of the regular session that ended in May, Democrats staged a walkout that killed the election bill that Abbott had earmarked as a priority.
That legislation, Senate Bill 7, would have placed new limits on early voting hours, local voting options and mail ballots. Democrats have said the bill amounted to voter suppression that would have made it more difficult in particular for people of color in Texas to vote. The House and Senate versions of the elections proposal filed for the special session are fairly similar but not identical to the version debated at the end of the regular session.
“Every option is on the table. We are going to use every parliamentary means in front of us to combat this,” Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) told reporters during a news conference hosted by the House Democratic Caucus after the chamber adjourned Thursday. He declined to offer specifics when asked by a reporter for further details a few minutes later.
Even as Phelan has made overtures with colleagues over the second effort to pass an election bill, he has also made clear that he could take a harder line against fleeing Democrats than he did at the end of the regular session.
“My Democratic colleagues have been quoted saying all options are on the table” for the voting legislation in the special session, Phelan told KXAN on Wednesday. “Respectfully, all options are on the table for myself as well.”
The House’s revised approach to the voting legislation is in contrast to the Senate. In that chamber, Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican, is again carrying the omnibus election proposal, which for a second time will be considered before the upper chamber’s State Affairs Committee, which Hughes chairs. The committee is set to consider the legislation Saturday.
One of the starkest changes to the elections bill in the House for the special session was its author. Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, carried the bill in the regular session, but Phelan tapped Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) to take the lead on it during the special session. Murr currently chairs the House Corrections Committee.
On Wednesday, Murr sent a letter to House colleagues announcing he had filed House Bill 3 and was soliciting their feedback.
“Because this subject is important to all Members and their constituents, and given the compressed time frame of the special session, I welcome any questions, discussions or comments you may have,” Murr wrote, inviting members to call him or come by his office.
Cain did not return a request for comment Thursday about no longer authoring the bill. He had some rocky moments shepherding the legislation during the regular session, fumbling over procedural errors during committee process or struggling at times to defend it during floor debate.
During a committee hearing on Senate Bill 7 in March, for example, Cain abruptly ended a hearing after he refused to take questions from Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, who had asked to participate in the hearing. Cain made a procedural error when he recessed the committee by failing to announce a time members would reconvene. That error meant the hearing would not continue that day. More than 100 people who had traveled to the Capitol to testify on the bill were sent home.
Earlier this week, Phelan announced the formation of the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies, saying it would address potential agenda items for the special session. (The agenda had not been revealed yet at that point.)
Phelan said Wednesday that he established the select committee to “to get a broader perspective of House members involved” — and made clear he had the elections bill in mind.
“For instance, on the Elections Committee, there were no African Americans … and that was not by my choice, that was by committee preferences,” Phelan told KXAN. “I thought in this instance, with the seriousness of election integrity, I could create a committee that had an African American female, an African American male on it, that we could diversify geographically and politically to get all perspectives to where we could say this was an election integrity bill that everyone had input.”
The Black members on the committee are its vice chair, Rep. Senfronia Thompson — a Houston Democrat who is the longest-serving woman and Black legislator — and Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican.
Phelan did not put Cain on the new panel, nor did he tap Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Elections Committee. But he did tap Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), a member of the Elections Committee who had helped Cain with the elections bill during the regular session.
On Thursday, the main elections bill for the special session — HB 3 — as well as other voting-related proposals were referred to the select committee instead of the Elections Committee. The election bill was set for a hearing set to start 8 a.m. Saturday.
During Democrats’ news conference Thursday, Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said that the legislation, despite any changes that may be made to it, “is inherently flawed.”
“The bottom line on HB 3 is, just like SB 7, it’s based on a lie,” Turner told reporters. “It’s based on a lie that there’s rampant problems in our elections and the big lie that Donald Trump actually won the last election.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.