This article has been updated.
Texas Democrats have staved off Republican-led changes to Texas voting law, but the fight over access to the ballot box is far from over.
On Friday, the Texas Legislature closed its 26-day special session, where GOP-led voting changes in Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 were a top priority. Democrats, who left the state capitol once in May to break quorum and block earlier versions of the bills, left Austin again on July 12. Fifty-seven traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for federal legislation that would nullify the bills.
But as one special session ends, another begins. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced this week that another session would begin Saturday, with election law changes among the 17 items on the agenda. Others include reviving bills banning the teaching of “critical race theory” and a newly added measure relating to “legislative quorum requirements.”
What happens next isn’t clear. If Congress recesses without taking up election reforms, Texas House members could choose to stay in Washington. They could return to Texas and possibly risk arrest under rules invoked by Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont). They could also continue to break quorum by waiting out the second special session in a different state.
State Rep. Ray Lopez, one of seven Bexar County Democrats who went to Washington, told the San Antonio Report on Friday that “while I’m not at liberty to share any more about our travel plans, we definitely have them.”
“Right now, what we need to do is stay here and make sure that the [U.S.] Senate does what they need to do, and don’t take the pressure off, and make sure the ones who are telling us they are with us, to make sure that they’re speaking up,” Lopez said.
Texas Republican leaders have cast the quorum-breakers as lawbreakers shirking their duty. GOP Senators held a press conference Tuesday to blast them as “taking a vacation,” as Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) put it.
“In no other industry on earth can you fail to show up for the job for 30 days, get paid, and expect to keep the job,” said State Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston), chair of the Texas House Republican caucus.
Bexar County’s two Republican state House members, Rep. Steve Allison and Rep. Lyle Larson, did not respond to requests for comment Friday on the second special session. Neither did State Rep. Leo Pacheco, a moderate Bexar County Democrat who left Austin in early July to break quorum but didn’t join the more progressive group in Washington. The San Antonio Express-News reported later Friday that Pacheco planned to give up his District 118 seat in the coming weeks to join the faculty at San Antonio College.
On Twitter, Larson has been critical of Abbott’s COVID-19 response and efforts to defund legislative staff.
“The separation of powers provision in the constitution is clear,” Larson wrote on Tuesday, in response to Abbott’s plan to slash funding for the legislative branch. “The Supreme Court needs to step up and make it understood that no future governor can cross this road again.”
Texas is at the center of a nationwide fight over the electoral process, tied to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the November 2020 election. Since then, legislatures in 18 states have introduced or passed laws that in some way restrict access to polls.
Lopez, a former four-term District 6 City Councilman and Northside ISD board member, said he can see the effect Trump’s continued hold over the Republican party is having on his colleagues in the Texas House.
“I think a lot of them are just scared to death that they’re gonna get a hard-right Republican, or a Trump Republican to run against them,” Lopez said.
Other Texas Democrats leaders are also being tight-lipped about their next moves as the second session looms.
“If you’re looking for us to telegraph exactly what we’re going to do over the next couple days, we’re not able to do that at this time,” said State Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), who leads the party’s caucus, told reporters Friday. “The governor would love us to do that, but we’re not going to.”
However, several made it clear they plan to stay in Washington as long as the U.S. Senate is in session. Texas Democrats want the Senate to hold a vote on election reforms before senators leave for their annual August recess.
“As long as Congress is in session, we’re in session here,” State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), the longest-serving Bexar County House member, said Friday.
That vote has been stalled because of Senate rules that require a 60-vote majority to bypass the filibuster and pass a bill. Changing the Senate’s rules would require all 50 Democratic senators, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) have said they want to leave some form of the filibuster in place.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) has kept the senate meeting through the first week of August in an effort to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package, scheduled for a vote Saturday. No vote has yet been scheduled on voting rights measures, though Schumer has reportedly told senators to expect one before the recess.
Speaking at a press conference Friday alongside Texas legislators, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), the chief sponsor For the People Act stalled in the Senate, credited the Texas group for “bringing the battle, the frontline, to the Capitol of the United States.” This week, dozens of legislators from other states also descended on Washington to put more pressure on Congress.
Merkley said if Democrats fail to put voting rights legislation on the floor this week fails, his colleagues should pressure Republicans to sign onto the voting reforms. He didn’t articulate a plan for what Democrats would do if that fails.
“If we come back and we do not have Republicans standing with us to try to take on this corruption in our election system and to defend the right and freedom to vote, we fill find a way,” Merkley said. “We must find a way.”