The Washington Post Sunday
‘No playbook’: Texas Democrats seize spotlight, fight clock
They race to push voter bill as Republicans back home sharpen attacks
Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry was already on a flight to Washington on Tuesday when a state trooper and a staff member for the sergeant-at-arms came looking for her.
Thierry, a Democrat who represents Houston, posted video of the exchange on her Instagram account this past week, writing that the officers had come to “apprehend me” for helping break quorum and block passage of new voting restrictions by the Republican-controlled House.
“Fortunately, I was already out of Texas territory and headed to DC to fight for our voting rights. This is the battle of a lifetime, friends and family,” she wrote.
But days after nearly 60 Texas Democrats made their dramatic exodus from Austin to Washington, many of them acknowledge that how that battle will unfold remains very uncertain — and that they have a rapidly closing window to capitalize on the national spotlight.
While they quickly secured meetings with Vice President Harris, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and other lawmakers in their first week in Washington, so far the Texans have been unable to push forward long-stalled federal voting rights legislation. Back at home, meanwhile, Republican officials have ratcheted up their attacks on the Democrats for abandoning their legislative duties, threatening to have them arrested when they return to the state.
“Time is not on our side,” Thierry said an interview.
The Texans have said they plan to remain in Washington through Aug. 7, when the special legislative session ordered by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is scheduled to expire. Their exact plan until then is still in the works.
“Understand that when it comes to breaking a quorum, there’s no playbook, there’s no instructional guide, there’s no ‘Breaking Quorum for Dummies’ out there,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D) said Friday. “You take it day by day, week by week. What we’ve demonstrated this first week is we’re very serious about our business up here. We feel like we’re leading the fight for the country, and now that we know the country is watching us, we want to make sure we’re doing our part to mobilize democracy in this nation.”
After executing a closely held operation to leave the state that involved a phone tree and chartered planes, the Texas lawmakers said they received supportive messages from Democratic peers in states such as Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, Georgia and Arizona.
“We’ve had representatives at state levels, city council members, mayors say, ‘You guys hang in there and fight the good fight, we’ll send you money, don’t worry,’ ” said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, the vice chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.
On Wednesday night, members of the caucus mingled with state lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and Georgia at a reception honoring the Texas delegation at a restaurant downtown, Reynolds said. On Friday, Black state lawmakers from Texas, Maryland and Virginia held a joint news conference in Alexandria, Va., to renew calls for Congress to act, and the three delegations plan to attend a church service together Sunday.
“It seems to me that our purpose is resonating with other elected officials,” said Martinez Fischer, adding: “There’s going to be a common cause for lawmakers across the country that represent state legislatures to start coming together, because we are all facing it in some form or fashion.”
The Texans’ high-profile maneuver comes as the national battle over voting rules continues to heat up in other states. In Michigan, Republicans plan to use a quirk in state law to try to enact new election restrictions without the signature of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. That possibility has voting rights advocates mobilizing ahead of what is expected to be an expensive and labor-intensive political fight.
“We are ready and we are on full alert,” said Mark Brewer, a lawyer who once chaired the Michigan Democratic Party.
The Michigan Democratic Party praised the Texas lawmakers for putting the pressure on Congress to pass federal legislation. “We stand with @TexasDemocrats as they take the fight for voting rights all the way to Washington, DC,” the party tweeted on Monday as the news broke that the Texans had left the state.
But the Texas Democrats face tough odds as they seek to spur Congress to action. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have publicly opposed changes to the filibuster, the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority requirement, which are necessary for the voting bill to advance.
Manchin’s posture did not budge even after the Texans pressed him in person. “Forget the filibuster,” the senator told reporters afterward.
Through the week, Thierry met with several lawmakers, including Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), the successor to the late congressman John Lewis, a leader in the civil rights movement, for whom one of the federal voting bills is named. Williams told Texas lawmakers she was a strong ally, but the Texans said they did not walk away with the impression that the federal legislation could pass before Aug. 7.
Still, some were optimistic after Manchin described the potential for a bill that could neutralize some of the restrictions contained in state Republican voting measures, Thierry said.
A list of voting policies that Manchin has said he would support would be narrower than the For the People Act, the sweeping Democratic bill that the House passed in March, but under the circumstances, “we can’t wait,” Thierry said.
On Saturday, President Biden again urged Congress to pass voting rights legislation, noting that Lewis — who died one year ago — took huge personal risks to protect access to the polls. “With John’s spirit guiding us, we must be unafraid and never, ever give up,” Biden said in a statement.
Still, there are multiple hurdles. A major infrastructure deal and a potential $3.5 trillion expansion in social and climate spending are claiming congressional Democrats’ attention.
On Saturday, three of the Texas Democrats tested positive for the coronavirus, even though all were vaccinated, potentially complicating the work of the caucus.
And the clock is ticking. On Aug. 7, Abbott could call another special session, forcing the Democrats to choose whether to extend their exile.
Republicans back in Austin have sought to ratchet up the pressure on their missing colleagues. Late in the week, House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) stripped the highest-ranking Democrat in his chamber, Rep. Joe Moody, of his title as Speaker Pro Tempore.
Phelan also announced that a chartered plane funded by his campaign would be on standby to bring Democrats in Washington back home on Saturday.
“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. The State of Texas is waiting,” he said in a statement.
In their own statement, House Democratic leaders said that Phelan should “save his money.”
While the Texas House currently lacks the two-thirds of lawmakers necessary to take action on legislation, the chamber was able to pass a “call,” in which members with unexcused absences may be detained and brought back to their capitol desks by state law enforcement. All others must check in daily and receive a signed pass to leave.
“The reason why the Democrats were out of state is because they know that if they were in state, they could be apprehended by Texas Department of Public Safety officers and brought to the Capitol to do their job,” Abbott said Thursday in an interview with the Texas Standard radio show. “But if they come back to Texas, I will call a special session. If they stay out of Texas, I will call another special session. Bottom line, we are going to continue to call a special session after special session after a special session until we get the business of Texas done.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has asked for Abbott to add changing the quorum requirement to the list of items up for discussion during the special session, but it is unclear whether Abbott will pursue that effort.
The Senate continued to meet throughout the week on the floor and in committee hearings despite their peers’ absence, passing at least a half-dozen bills out of the chamber — legislation that is stalled until the House once again has a full quorum.
“We will pass these bills as many times as we need to for Texans,” state Sen. Donna Campbell (R) said Friday. “While they’re away, we will stay. We will work together to keep Texas strong.”
For some Democrats, the decision to come to Washington was difficult — and deeply personal.
Thierry’s mother was the first Black teacher to integrate Sharpstown Junior High School in Houston and fought for civil rights throughout the 1960s, Thierry said. Her grandmother had to take literacy tests and pay poll taxes to be able to vote.
After she got the call Sunday night that the Democrats were going to be flying to Washington, Thierry called her mother, now 80. She was contemplating staying behind, worried about leaving her young daughter.
“I told her, ‘I don’t really think I can do that,’ ” said Thierry. But her mom, she said, pushed her to go.
“I’m fighting for my grandmother, and I’m fighting for my daughter,” she said. “This will be the third generation of AfricanAmerican women dealing with laws that are seeking to suppress their access to the ballot.”
At the news conference Friday in Alexandria, Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D) became emotional when describing the obstacles Black Americans have had to overcome to gain equal rights.
“Haven’t we done enough? Haven’t we paid the price enough? What is it going to take for us to be Americans in this country?” Thompson said, fighting tears. “We are Americans. We deserve the same rights and respect, and the same consideration that everybody has. And I’m going to fight until we get it. I am not going to be your hostage. If they want to arrest me, bring it on.”