Texas Republican Briscoe Cain blindsides fellow lawmakers in push for House version of new voting restrictions

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Voters cast their ballots at the Performing Arts Center at Texas State University in San Marcos. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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A raw power play by the chair of the Texas House Elections Committee came up one vote short Thursday, but the legislative blindside maneuver underscored the intensity behind the Republican push to get proposed voting restrictions to the governor’s desk — and the competing visions between the House and Senate for what those restrictions should look like.

With little advance notice, state Rep. Briscoe Cain brought up in his committee Senate Bill 7, the priority voting bill that has already passed the Senate, and moved to gut it entirely. His motion would have replaced the bill's language with that of House Bill 6, a significantly different voting bill favored by House leadership, and put the Senate on the defensive to resurrect its legislation.

Caught off guard, Democrats on the committee said they were handed the replacement language minutes before they were asked to vote, and repeatedly objected to the move, which would have preempted any public hearing by the House on SB 7’s provisions that differ substantially from Cain’s substitute.

“I feel that SB 7 is a significant piece of legislation that we should hold a hearing on it,” said state Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin.

“I agree, but we are doing a committee substitute to match it to House Bill 6, and we've already heard a complete hearing on that exact language,” Cain responded. He argued that the committee’s lengthy hearing on HB 6 was “sufficient.”

“These two bills are substantially different — you have said that time and time again in committee. Many times you have said these bills are totally different when somebody compared it to SB 7,” said state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee. “I have to object. This is wrong. We deserve to have a public hearing on this.”

The meeting erupted into chaos as lawmakers spoke over each other and Democrats pushed back on signing off on Cain's maneuver. Cain pressed forward, saying there were no objections to adopting the substitute language even as Democrats continued to object, even shouting at times.

Cain then quickly called for a vote so the rewritten bill could head to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote. But he was forced to withdraw his proposal after state Rep. Travis Clardy said he would “pass” and refused to cast a vote. Without the Nacogdoches Republican’s vote — and Democrats on the committee voting against the bill — there weren’t enough votes for it to make it out of the committee. The committee then recessed so lawmakers could head to the House floor for the full chamber’s regular session.

Both SB 7 and HB 6 are prominent pieces in a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas many of which have been catalogued as disproportionately harmful to voters of colors — that would further tighten the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud.

SB 7 clamps down on early voting rules and hours, restricts how voters can receive applications to vote by mail and regulates the distribution of polling places in diverse urban counties, among several other provisions in the expansive bill. The legislation passed the Senate with support from the chamber’s Republican majority and was awaiting action in the House.

HB 6, authored by Cain and approved by the committee’s Republican majority earlier this month, would restrict the distribution of applications to vote by mail, require people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help in casting their ballot — even if for medical reasons — and enhance protections for partisan poll watchers, including criminal liability for election workers for their treatment of watchers.

The push to replace the Senate’s priority election bill with Cain’s proposals could serve as an indication of how far apart the House and the Senate are on what changes the Legislature should make to voting this session. Instead of uniting behind identical, or even substantially similar bills, each chamber has moved forward with different measures.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick deemed SB 7 a legislative priority while House Speaker Dade Phelan has made clear he supports the proposals in HB 6. But while Cain’s actions on Thursday would have essentially gutted SB 7 as it was passed in the Senate, it wouldn’t have foreclosed its original restrictions from becoming law.

If the full House voted to approve the rewritten bill, it would then head to a conference committee in which members of the two chambers would work to hash out the differences between the version passed out of each chamber — and possibly bring back the bill’s original restrictions.

“Just because we substitute it in our side does not mean the language on Senate Bill 7 is inherently dead,” Bucy said in an interview after the hearing.

Without a public hearing and House debate on SB 7, the Legislature could end up passing the original version of the bill without any public input or consideration of its provisions in the House, Bucy argued. Cain, who did not respond to requests for comment, indicated the committee would return to matter later Thursday after what’s expected to be a long day in the full chamber.

“These are not the same bills so in my opinion it should require a hearing. The people should have their voices heard on SB 7,” Bucy said. “It’s unacceptable, and I hope they will reconsider.”

Neelam Bohra contributed to this report.