End of walkout divides Texas Democrats: “We feel betrayed and heartbroken”

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HOUSTON – For weeks, Democratic lawmakers in Texas have heard that some members will break ranks and return to Capitol Hill.

But as they gathered on Thursday morning for their daily Zoom call, there was no indication that their 38-day walkout was about to collapse.

More than 50 Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives fled Austin for Washington last month to prevent a quorum and effectively eliminate a sweeping electoral overhaul bill that would have introduced new restrictions on voting. Only one member, Garnet F. Coleman, was due to return to Capitol Hill Thursday, still leaving Republicans with two Democrats below a quorum.

Later that same day, however, many Democratic lawmakers were shocked and disappointed when they saw two other members walk into the House Chamber with Mr Coleman – enough to call the House to order and start working. on a long list of conservative goals appointed by Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican.

On Friday, the tenuous alliance between members of the Democratic House broke into an open confrontation, as 34 of them issued a joint statement criticizing their colleagues who returned to Capitol Hill. Caucus chair Chris Turner did not sign.

“We feel betrayed and heartbroken,” the Democratic members wrote in their joint statement. “But our determination is strong and this fight is not over.”

State Representative Jessica González, a Democrat near Dallas, said she was particularly frustrated with the suddenness of the decision, without warning that other Democrats would return.

“What’s most disheartening,” Ms. González said, “is that so many of us have stuck together on this topic, so many of us have made sacrifices, and the least people can do is at least to have a conversation as a caucus, as a whole, that way people can make their own decisions as well.

The return of the three Democrats absent on Thursday injected a new wave of uncertainty into the national battle over voting rights, which will most likely be felt all the way to Washington. The sudden collapse of the Democratic blockade opened the door for the passage of a new voting law containing restrictions that Democrats in Texas considered so strident that they broke the quorum twice.

But with the passage of federal voting laws still a long way off in Washington, Democrats in Texas are left with no clear path, and divisions remain on the best path forward.

The Texas House remains adjourned until Monday afternoon with no scheduled weekend activity. The voting bill, known as SB 1, was passed by the state Senate last week but did not make any progress in the House at all. It was planned for a committee hearing on Monday, and would still have to go through another committee before they can stand up for a vote, setting up a potential showdown next week.

Some Republican representatives were not physically present on Capitol Hill Thursday, although they were counted in the total, leading many Democrats to claim the quorum was illegitimate.

But Rafael Anchía, a Democrat from Dallas who is the chairman of the US-Mexico legislative caucus, said he believes Republican leaders will rally their members by Monday and that it makes sense for him to return to Austin now.

“There are a lot of bad bills,” Anchía said. “In no particular order, I have a large LGBT population that I have to fight for. I must go and fight for the parents of school-aged children who are not vaccinated.

With a quorum in the House, Republicans could try to vote to suspend normal rules and speed up voting on the election bill and other bills on Monday. He said that to prevent this from happening, Democrats would have to vote against it.

“We need a core of members there to make sure there is no vote to suspend the rules,” Anchía said.

Still, other Democrats have hoped they could prevent a quorum again, given the low margins involved.

“There is a core of us, myself included, who still want to continue this fight and hopefully bring enough Democrats back into our coalition to maintain the line,” said Ms González. “And so we didn’t give up.”

The anger felt by some Democratic lawmakers towards their colleagues was palpable on Friday. But for John Whitmire, a longtime Houston state senator, such a reaction was “a waste of time.”

“You cannot stay indefinitely, even though some members suggest such a move,” said Mr Whitmire, who was among 11 breakaway Democrats who refused a quorum in the state Senate in 2003 to stop a bill. cutting by Republicans. After five weeks, he returned to Austin, the first of his colleagues to do so.

Mr Whitmire said he spoke with several of the absent House members about whether or not to return.

“I told them to do what they thought was best, think for themselves and represent their districts,” said Mr Whitmire.

While the current Texas election bill looks like May’s version that first triggered a Democratic walkout, Democrats have won some concessions and Republicans have changed or removed some of the more restrictive provisions. Sunday voting hours remain protected, and Republicans have added an additional hour of mandatory early voting for weekdays. A provision that aimed to facilitate the annulment of elections has also been completely removed.

But the bill still bans electoral advances in Harris County, where Houston is located, which passed in the 2020 election, including drive-thru and 24-hour voting, and it bans election officials proactively send postal voting requests or promote the use of postal voting.

The bill also greatly empowers pro-election observers, weakening the authority of an election official over them and giving them greater autonomy at polling stations, and creates new obstacles for those seeking to assist voters. that need help, like translations.

The voting bill is far from the only item on Mr. Abbott’s agenda. The list also included a host of conservative goals, such as restricting access to abortion, limiting how students learn about racism, restricting transgender student athletes, and tightening border security. .

While Democrats worried, Republicans celebrated, rushing to Capitol Hill to fill the ranks and give President Dade Phelan, a Republican, enough members for a quorum.

The rush was enough to pull one member, Steve Allison, a Republican near San Antonio, from isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus earlier this week. He remained alone in a side room of the Chamber of the Chamber but was counted as present.

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