Texas Democrats have now walked out twice over Republican efforts to restrict voting. After they walked out on a Sunday night during the 87th regular session – denying the House a quorum and killing the voting bill as a midnight deadline expired, Speaker Dade Phelan gave an unemotional analysis.
“I’ve never been a big fan of big omnibus bills to begin with,” he said in an interview on Capital Tonight. “I would prefer, this is my personal opinion, in the next special session, that maybe those ideas are broken up into single-shot bills and people can have a little more idea what’s in the legislation.”
But that didn’t happen. When the special session convened on July 8, Rep. Andrew Murr offered up House Bill 3, which is definitely an omnibus elections bill. Republicans say the bill only adds common sense voting provisions while Democrats express concerns that the bill is aimed at disenfranchising certain voters in an increasingly purple state.
After the bill passed out of committee with no amendments on July 11, 58 Democrats left the state for a trip to Washington, D.C. the following day, once again denying the House a quorum.
The responses from Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick were predictable.
Abbott said the Democrats were “inflicting harm” on the state and that they needed to get back to the important business of the state, “the Democrats must put aside partisan political games and get back to the job they were elected to do,” he said. “Their constituents must not be denied these important resources simply because their elected representative refused to show up to work.” He then vowed to have them arrested.
Patrick said that the Democrats in Washington were spreading “damned lies” and predicted that the entire episode would end with them being arrested when they finally return home. “This is just dereliction of duty, they are AWOL,” Patrick concluded. “It really bothers me down to my core for them to think they are some brave souls. If this were the Alamo they would have been the first people over the wall when they saw trouble coming.”
But it was Phelan who issued a press release that claimed Democrats were trying to “stall election integrity” and were putting state funding for certain items at risk. He stated that the “Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, Article X funding, and other important measures Governor Abbott placed on the special session agenda.” He ended by demanding that the Democrats return to Austin.
Since then Phelan has been even more strident in his responses, which has included putting a jet on standby to pick up the Democrats and demanding that the departed Dems return immediately. “I am demanding all of our colleagues in D.C. to contact my staff immediately in order to secure their seat on the plane and return to Austin in order to do the state’s business,” he said. “The State of Texas is waiting.”
Phelan also demanded that the absent representatives return their $221 per diem to the state, but perhaps the harshest action he has taken has been to remove state representative Joe Moody from his leadership position as Speaker Pro Tempore.
This action was particularly troubling to many legislative members because of Phelan’s close working relationship with Moody, who has served as speaker pro tem for two sessions under two speakers and is one of Phelan’s top allies in the Democratic party to work on bipartisan issues.
While the Chairman of the Democratic House Caucus, Chris Turner called the move “short-sighted and dumb”, Moody had a more temperate response. “The most important titles in my life will never change: Dad, Husband, El Pasoan,” Moody said in a statement. “Nothing political has ever even cracked the top three, so nothing has changed about who I am or what my values are.”
While Moody may appear accepting of the decision, there is concern among legislators and others about how the stalemate will end and what steps Phelan may take to bring the Democrats back.
With a constitutional provision that the special session cannot exceed 30 days, Phelan is working on a short time frame. There is talk at the Capitol that since the House never adjourned we are still on the same legislative day as of July 13 and that Phelan may use this “frozen time” argument to force a resolution. While this may seem far-fetched and improbable, stranger maneuvers have occurred in Texas politics in the past.
Although the Governor, Lt. Governor, and several ranking members in the Republican leadership want Phelan to strip seniority privileges and remove the chairmanships of any missing Democrats that are heads of committees, Phelan has thus far refused to do so, indicating that House rules don’t allow it without a quorum present.
It remains to be seen if Phelan will make whatever movements to bring the House to order in accordance with the rules and refuse to listen to the more extreme members of his party or if he will eventually bow to their wishes.
The Speaker may not need to wait much longer if House Dems are successful in negotiating certain bill changes with Murr. The author of a bill may consent to changes as the bill negotiates its way through the chamber. Rep. Philip Cortez announced on July 21 that he had returned from Washington, D.C. to “lead the reform effort on HB 3” on behalf of a small group of Democrats. “We have identified some pressure points in the bill that we would like to see addressed,” Cortez said.
While Caucus Chair Turner confirmed that he had asked Cortez to return, other Democrats took issue with the decision. “To be clear, he is not negotiating on our behalf. He made the decision to rejoin Republicans without speaking to the Democrat delegation,” stated Rep. Gina Hinojosa. If the Democrats are fracturing on the decision to return, that may be all that is needed for Phelan and House leadership to pressure enough of them to return to fulfill a quorum.
With the return of Cortez, there are now 94 members of the House present so only a few of those remaining would need to return to meet the two-thirds requirement for a quorum.
Whether or not Murr and Cortez will be able to work out a resolution acceptable to the Democratic caucus is questionable. In a public statement, Murr said, “Phil Cortez and I will likely never see eye-to-eye on this election legislation, but he will have a seat at the table to fight for his district because he is willing to defend their beliefs in the chamber of the Texas House.”
With all of these issues plus several of the caucus testing positive for COVID-19, it remains to be seen if any of this can work out before the session ends. Perhaps the more likely scenario will be the expiration of the session and negotiations on the voting bill behind the scenes before or during a future special session.
With all of this uncertainty, the question remains regarding the actions of the Speaker. Will he side with the far right of his party on forcing the Democrats back or simply punish them? Or will he take a more moderate approach and try to help work out House differences on the bill?
With the end of the session fast approaching, we will soon find out.