J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives stood in front of the U.S. House in Washington on Tuesday after leaving their state and blocking action on a GOP-sponsored voting measure in Texas that they say amounts to voter suppression. The lawmakers also urged members of Congress and President Biden to act to preserve voting rights nationwide.
Biden is to address the issue later Tuesday in Pennsylvania.
More than 50 Democrats arrived in Washington on Monday night, depriving the Texas House of the two-thirds of the 150-member body needed for a quorum to conduct a vote.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has threated to arrest the lawmakers upon their return to Texas and compel them to participate. The current special session to take up the voting bills ends Aug. 7, and Abbott vowed to call “special session after special session” to force lawmakers eventually to take up the measures.
Calls for a “Lyndon Johnson moment”
The Texas legislation would eliminate some provisions put in place after the coronavirus pandemic to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots. It would ban drive-through voting and empower partisan poll watchers.
“We are living right now on borrowed time in Texas, and we can’t stay here indefinitely,” Texas state Rep. Rhetta Bowers acknowledged outside the Capitol. “We need Congress to act now.”
The U.S. House has approved the For the People Act, which would provide federal protections to voters, but it has stalled in the Senate.
Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson said she did not come to Washington “to take a vacation” but to make sure “that my constituents’ rights will not be stripped from them.” She added that Republicans in the Texas Legislature “may have changed the messiah from Jesus to Trump, but I haven’t.”
U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, called on Biden to act to preserve voting rights. “What we really need today is a Lyndon Johnson moment,” Doggett said, referring the Texan Johnson’s signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“We need the president and the vice president and every Democrat in this Senate working together to preserve American democracy,” Doggett said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, dismissed the lawmakers’ move as a “political stunt.”
“Rather than do their jobs in Texas, yesterday House Democrats abandoned both our state and the millions of Texans that they represent,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor, noting that other legislation besides voting is also now stalled.
Progressive activists are also turning up the pressure on Biden. They planned to rally to push the president to use his bully pulpit more forcefully to make the case for enacting the For the People Act.
“He could go around the country and give speeches about it very specifically that would educate voters so that they get on board and they tell their senators that it needs to be passed, and he can rally support for it,” said Vicki Miller of Indivisible Philadelphia, one of the groups protesting outside of Biden’s speech. “This is what presidents do when they prioritize major legislation. And he could be doing that, and we want him to start now.”
Miller also said she hoped to see Biden make the case for amending the Senate’s filibuster rules, specifically for the purpose of passing voting rights legislation. Current rules require 60 votes to overcome a challenge and move legislation forward — a threshold Democrats haven’t been able to meet in this effort.
NPR political reporter Juana Summers contributed to this report.