Texas Senate starts debate on GOP-backed election bill; House wants to round up absent Dems

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AUSTIN — The House voted Tuesday to round up absent Democrats “by warrant of arrest, if necessary” after they fled Texas to block a GOP-backed elections bill.

Across the Capitol, the Senate began debating the legislation that Republicans say protects election integrity, but Democrats decry as voter suppression.

At least 50 House Democrats traveled to Washington D.C. on Monday, effectively halting work in the Republican-led chamber and killing the elections legislation — for now. Several Senate Democrats went too, though not enough to stop a vote in the 31-member chamber.

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who left Texas on Monday, said it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I already spent the entire legislative session arguing on the Senate floor against these bills and — because the House broke quorum — nothing the Senate passes this week will become law this special session,” he said in a statement. “I had to consider what I thought I could get done in Austin versus what I thought I could achieve out of Austin. I chose the latter.”

House Democrats pledged to stay away from Texas until the end of the 30-day special session in early August. Any member who returns now risks being arrested and brought to the Capitol.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday reiterated plans to call as many special sessions as needed to pass his 11-item agenda, even if it means legislating until the 2022 election. The Republican also suggested that any absent Democrat who holds a House leadership post should lose it, though House Speaker Dade Phelan said Tuesday chamber rules won’t allow it.

“They were not elected to run and hide,” Abbott said on the Chad Hasty show on KYFO radio in Lubbock. “They were elected to make arguments that are best for their constituents and then cast votes.”

It’s the second time Democrats have taken dramatic action to sink the GOP priority bill. In late May, House Democrats staged a walkout that upended the elections legislation and prompted Abbott to call the special session. Since it began last Thursday, Republicans fast-tracked the election bills with marathon public hearings that lasted through the night last weekend and drew hundreds of opponents.

Republicans say the bills are simply designed to prevent voter fraud. Democrats, however, contend the legislation is really a response to former President Donald Trump’s false assertions of widespread fraud and will simply make it harder to vote.

The legislation would ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, extend protections for partisan poll watchers and add restrictions to mail-in balloting.

Even if the Senate passes the bill Tuesday, as is expected, it will die if the House cannot take it up. So will the rest of Abbott’s special session agenda, that includes overhauling the bail system, restricting medication abortion and giving retired teachers a bonus pension check.

The state Constitution requires two-thirds of the 150 members — or a quorum — to meet or pass bills. In the first parliamentary test Tuesday, only 80 House members were present when the chamber gaveled in, 20 shy of the needed 100.

The GOP-led House then approved, on successive votes of 76-4, a motion for a “call of the House” and a move to empower the House sergeant-at-arms to round up missing members using all available methods. Under House rules, all absent members without an excuse can “be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained.”

Phelan’s office did not immediately respond to queries about whether the sergeant-at-arms has sought help from law enforcement agencies, and if so, from which ones.

At a news conference, House GOP Caucus Chairman Jim Murphy confirmed that state troopers and Texas Rangers only have the ability to make arrests within the state.

Murphy, a member of Phelan’s leadership team, said only moral suasion and conscience can bring back the errant Democrats.

“We think their better angels will prevail, and we’ll see them here,” he said.

Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said on Twitter Tuesday she was thankful to be “in the air” on her way to Washington D.C. after staffers sent her a video of the sergeant-at-arms attempting to retrieve her from her Capitol office and bring her to the floor.

Until a quorum is reached, no House committees can meet and no debate can be held in the chamber on election bills or any other topics Abbott has asked lawmakers to consider in the 30-day special session, Phelan said. The chamber doors were also locked Tuesday. Members can leave only with permission of the House speaker, according to House rules.

Four Democrats who remained in the Capitol on Tuesday voted against the measure: Reps. Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass, John Turner of Dallas, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City and Tracy King of Batesville.

In a press conference Tuesday, Turner said that all House Democrats oppose the election bills that prompted the walkout. But Turner thought he could more effectively fight that legislation by remaining in Texas to voice his concerns, he said.

Morales said his decision to stay was based on what he believed his conservative-leaning constituency would want from their representative.

Although the remaining House Democrats on the floor were locked in the chamber, Morales said he was told they would likely receive permission to leave sometime Tuesday afternoon.

Unaccounted for in D.C. or on the House floor were El Paso Democratic Rep. Art Fierro, who Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody said was not in Texas, and Houston Democratic Rep. Garnet Coleman, who said this morning on a Houston radio program that he would not be joining his colleagues in the nation’s capital for health reasons.

Four Democratic Senators were present on the floor Tuesday: Chuy Hinojosa of McAllen; Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville; John Whitmire of Houston and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo.

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