With Republican-backed voting bills moving rapidly through a special session of the state Legislature, Texas Democrats bolted — again.
At least 58 Democratic members of the state House of Representatives planned to flee the state on Monday in an effort to block the measures from advancing, a source familiar with the plans told NBC News. The unusual move, akin to what Democrats did in 2003, would paralyze the chamber, stopping business until the lawmakers return to town or the session ends.
The majority of the members have departed on two private charter jets to Washington, D.C. Others will make their own way.
The lawmakers plan to spend more than three weeks in Washington, running out the clock on the session that began July 8 and rallying support for federal voting legislation. The Democrats say the For the People Act is the only way they can permanently fend off restrictions Republicans are advancing in the state.
“Our democracy is on the line,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer told NBC News. “It became very clear to us that this weekend that any attempts to negotiate some Democratic concessions were cut off, making it very clear that Republicans were hell bent on having it their way.”
The lawmakers risk arrest in taking flight. Under the Texas Constitution, the Legislature requires a quorum of two-thirds of lawmakers be present to conduct state business in either chamber. Absent lawmakers can be legally compelled to return to the Capitol, and the source said Democrats expect state Republicans to ask the Department of Public Safety to track them down.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has made tightening election rules a priority, slammed the move as a dereliction of duty.
“Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said in statement. “As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”
Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan vowed to “use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum” in a statement on Monday afternoon.
“The special session clock is ticking,” Phelan said.
Many of the Democrats who fled have families, medical issues or child care obligations, making the three-week venture more difficult. Still, the state House members have nonetheless been considering the extraordinary measure for weeks. To block the currently pending legislation, the Democratic lawmakers would have to remain away through the end of the special session, which can last as many as 30 days under the state’s constitution.
Initially, members considered decamping to West Virginia and Arizona, because Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have opposed abolishing the filibuster to pass the For the People Act. But they feared the states’ Republican governors would aid in their return them to Texas.
“Bottom line, there is nothing special about this special session, it’s based on the big lie — Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election,” said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat from Austin.
Advocates in Texas said the action matched the moment.
“The walkout is a drastic action in direct response to the governor’s refusal to listen to his constituents or address the real needs of Texans,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, in a statement.
Carisa Lopez, political director for civil liberties group Texas Freedom Network, also applauded the move.
“Texas Republicans have proven time and again they care more about winning primaries than solving actual problems for Texans, so I’m really proud of Texas Democrats for taking bold action. We do need federal legislation now, so Texas Democrats are taking on immense risk to try and push that forward and keep this awful voter suppression legislation from becoming law,” she told NBC News in an interview on Monday afternoon.
p class>State House Democrats already staged one successful walkout to defeat election legislation. Members quietly left the House floor in the final minutes of the regular legislative session that ended in May, breaking quorum and forcing the GOP to adjourn without passing a voting bill. But that victory was always likely to be short-lived, as Republicans control both legislative chambers.
Abbott kept his vow to call a special session, and Republicans didn’t waste time. Lawmakers advanced a pair of voting measures — House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 — Sunday after marathon committee hearings in both chambers, with the House hearing lasting nearly 24 hours. Both panels featured members of the public waiting hours to give testimony in the middle of the night. Floor votes were expected to take place as soon as this week.
Both bills would add new identification requirements for mail voting, ban some early voting options and create new criminal penalties for breaking election code while empowering partisan poll watchers.
Though lawmakers did it briefly in May, breaking quorum is still a rare step. In May 2003, more than 50 state House Democrats left the state to try to block a redistricting proposal supported by the Republican majority. After the plan ultimately passed the state House, The Chicago Tribune reported at the time, Democratic state senators then fled to New Mexico, before eventually a defector reinstated quorum.
The redistricting plan eventually passed the Senate in October. The redistricting bill at the time was known as House Bill 3 — the same legislative moniker as one of current session’s voting bills.