SAN ANTONIO – The special session of the Texas Legislature remains in a stalemate as the walkout of the Texas House Democrats stretched into its second week on Monday.
Last week, Democrats left the state to break quorum in protest of election legislation proposed by Republicans and endorsed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The bill would allow more access to partisan poll watchers, prohibit drive-thru and 24-hour voting locations and implement new voter identification requirements on absentee voters among other provisions.
The Democrats flew to Washington, D.C. in hopes of convincing the U.S. Senate to pass its own election legislation which would restore sections of the Voting Rights Act and undo many of the proposals in Texas’ bill.
Jon Taylor, a political science professor with the University of Texas at San Antonio, spoke with KSAT 12 News about the significance of the walkout, when the tactic was used before and what lies ahead for the Texas Legislature as the special session remains in limbo. Here’s what you need to know.
Texas Democrats cannot be arrested for the walkout
After Democrats prevented a quorum in the Texas House, the House directed state troopers to bring the lawmakers back “under warrant of arrest if necessary.” Similarly, Abbott has echoed calls for their arrest.
Beyond state lines, that authorization is meaningless, Taylor said.
“There’s a misnomer to think that this is somehow some sort of actual arrest,” Taylor said. “That’s not accurate because this is a civil warrant, not a criminal warrant. They can’t be charged with anything for their absence.”
Even if Democrats return to the state, troopers can only detain them and take them back to the Capitol, Taylor said.
Quorum rules can’t be changed without a state constitutional amendment
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick floated another solution to get around the Democratic walkout.
I support @GregAbbott call for #SpecialSession Aug 8. I am asking him to add changing the quorum requirement to the call. Should be simple majority plus one, like it is in most states to stop outrageous behavior by Dems. I’m confident voters will support #MajorityPlusOne. #txlege— Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) July 15, 2021
Rather than wait for Democrats to return to the state, Patrick suggested Abbott change the quorum threshold, reducing it to “simple majority plus one” rather than the current two-thirds requirement.
The problem with that, Taylor said, is that it would require a state constitutional amendment. As it stands, the Texas Constitution specifically states a quorum for the House must require two-thirds attendance.
An amendment would require two-thirds approval of both the Texas House and Senate before it would need to be approved by Texas voters in an election.
Texas Democrats have tried breaking quorum before
Though it doesn’t happen often, the Texas Democrats have been here before.
Amid a 2003 special session over redistricting, Democrats broke quorum fleeing to New Mexico and Oklahoma as a last-ditch effort to prevent reshaping the districts in a way that Democrats say benefitted Republicans.
“You can make the argument it was successful in the sense that it slowed things down,” Taylor said. “Did it stop it? Of course not.”
The districts were redrawn, securing a Republican majority in the state’s congressional delegation for nearly two decades.
The Texas Democrats find themselves in a similar position this year, Taylor said. They can delay the process but are unlikely to defeat the bill’s passage.
What lies ahead
Sooner or later, Taylor said, the Democrats will have to return to Texas and “fight the good fight.”
The U.S. Senate is extremely unlikely to carve out its filibuster rules to overhaul election laws, and Democrats will eventually face attrition. At least five of the lawmakers in Washington D.C. have also been infected with COVID-19 in recent days.
Beyond that, there are rising costs associated with the excursion. Though the House Democratic caucus is helping foot the bill along with political donations, Democrats say they’re spending roughly $10,000 a day on lodging and meals while in Washington D.C.
Even if Democrats successfully run out the clock on the 30-day special session, Abbott said he is prepared to call special session after special session until the Texas Legislature is able to pass the bills on his agenda. Other special sessions are also planned for appropriations and redistricting later this year.
And though this special session is filled with partisan bills — like the election law, critical race theory and social media censorship — there are also agenda items with broad bipartisan agreement, like adding supplemental payments to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, appropriations and funding for the Legislature that was vetoed by Abbott at the end of the regular session.
“They’ll want to come back for those,” Taylor said.
And though Democrats will likely lose on the bills they oppose, they can attempt to strike down the laws through the courts, Taylor said.
Until then, both political parties are hoping to use the walkout to energize their base for future elections, potentially altering the makeup of the Texas Legislature ahead of its next regular session in 2023.
“It could have an impact, potentially, in legislative races in the fall of 2022,” Taylor said.