Deploy law enforcement? Call another special session? Texas GOP mulls options for elections bill after Democrats leave the state

Planes stationed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on July 12, 2021.
Planes stationed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on July 12, 2021.

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After House Democrats left the state Monday in an attempt to block passage of a GOP election bill during the special legislative session, attention turned to the Republicans and what they can do to get the priority legislation passed.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement that afternoon that the chamber would “use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum” to pass items on the special session agenda, which was set by Gov. Greg Abbott. And a number of House Republicans indicated that they would support what’s known as a call of the House, a procedural move that would allow law enforcement to track down lawmakers who have already fled the chamber.

It’s unclear though what impact such an order could have, given that Democrats have flown to Washington, D.C. where Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction. Republicans are also keeping their cards close to the vest as to whether there are other tactics they plan to employ to compel members from the state’s minority party to return to Austin before the special session ends in 26 days.

Abbott, who has also tasked the Legislature with working on a host of other conservative priorities such as border security funding and abortion-related legislation, said later Monday that he can and will call as many special sessions as needed “until they do their job.”

“They will be corralled and cabined in the Capitol,” he told KVUE.

The election legislation at hand, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, would make a number of changes, such as banning drive-thru and 24 hour voting options and further restricting the state’s voting-by-mail rules. Both House and Senate committees advanced the legislation over the weekend after marathon hearings.

Two-thirds of the 150-member House must be present for the chamber to conduct business. And according to House rules, which were adopted unanimously by members at the beginning of the regular legislative session in January, any member can move to make a call of the House “to secure and maintain a quorum” for legislation. That motion must be seconded by 15 members, one of which can be the speaker, and ordered by a majority vote. The move also allows the speaker to lock the chamber doors to prevent members from leaving the chamber.

“Until a quorum appears, should the roll call fail to show one present, no business shall be transacted, except to compel the attendance of absent members or to adjourn,” the House rules state.

At least two House Republican chairmen — Briscoe Cain of Deer Park and Jeff Leach of Plano — have said they will support such a motion when the lower chamber gavels in Tuesday morning. And others, including state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, have indicated support for the procedural move.

“It’s a sad commentary that we may have to utilize a procedural rule to try and force most of the Democrats to show up to do the job they were elected to do,” Burrows said in a statement to The Texas Tribune, adding that “unfortunately, the siren call of social media fame and fundraising” had lured Democrats to D.C.

The last time the Democrats broke quorum and fled the state in 2003, Texas Republicans asked the attorneys general in Oklahoma and New Mexico if Texas troopers could arrest the lawmakers in their states without a warrant and bring them back to Texas. Both states said no.

Republican leaders at the time also asked whether federal authorities could bring the Democrats back, but the FBI and Justice Department said at the time that they had no justification for intervening.

As news of Democrats’ dramatic departure spread across Texas on Monday, a number of statewide Republican officeholders and lawmakers panned their colleagues as attention seekers who were neglecting their legislative duties and abandoning constituents who had elected them to work on issues facing the state.

In a statement, Abbott said the Democrats’ move to “abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve” and said they left on the table important issues like property tax relief and funding the state’s foster care system to “fly across the country on cushy private planes.”

Republicans also have another pressure point: funding for the legislative branch, including legislative staffers, will run out on Aug. 31 after Abbott vetoed its funding following the failure of two of his priority bills during the Democratic walkout in the regular session.

Democrats have challenged in court Abbott’s decision, which puts in jeopardy the livelihood of about 2,100 legislative staffers. But if they do not return to Austin to reinstate funding during the special session, Republicans could blame them for not paying those staffers.

“[The Democrats are] walking out the door right when they have an opportunity to get their staff paid when they've been complaining about it,” said Corbin Casteel, a GOP strategist. “It's a double-edged sword. They may be able to hold off on the voter integrity bill but they’re also screwing their own staff.”

Other House Republicans reacted Monday by filing legislation that would penalize lawmakers in the future for attempting to break quorum.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, who chairs the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he had filed a constitutional amendment proposal that would remove protections for a lawmakers’ salary if that legislator has an unexcused absence when a quorum is not present. He also filed legislation that would prevent lawmakers from campaign fundraising during a special session.

Middleton’s move came on the heels of state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a fellow Freedom Caucus member from Arlington, filing a House resolution that would allow the chamber to strip lawmakers who leave of their chairmanships and committee assignments as well as open the door for revoking “perks like large offices and coveted parking spots” that are typically doled out based on member seniority.

State Rep. Andrew Murr, a Junction Republican who is spearheading the House’s election bill, said in a statement to the Tribune that “it would be extremely disheartening” to see Democrats “make efforts to avoid debate on this topic.” He also said he’s “been as transparent as possible” to help “create the smartest and most effective policies.”

“I know both myself and other representatives would welcome the opportunity to continue the debate and work together to pass a strong election integrity bill,” Murr said.

Casteel said the state’s minority party could be trading a short-term gain for a long-term loss with their latest walkout.

“This is one of those kinds of deals where you're looking at the battle versus the war,” he said. “They won the first battle during the regular [session], they're trying the same thing here, but eventually their time is gonna run out and they're gonna have to come vote.”

In 2003, House Democrats left the state during the regular session to prevent a redistricting plan by Republicans who had just taken both chambers of the Legislature. Senate Democrats stalled for two special legislative sessions, until the redrawn maps were finally passed during the third special session called by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

Jon Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Abbott could do the same thing if Democrats do not return before the end of the special session.

“It's the old adage of elections have consequences,” Taylor said. “When you're not in the majority, they still at this point can't stop this stuff.”

But Taylor said even if Democrats can’t stop the elections bill, they can still bring attention to their cause.

“The point is to get it across to voters, to Congress, to the nation because this is not just something happening in Texas, it's happening in other red states,” he said. “We see it in Georgia, Florida, we've seen it in Oklahoma and we'll probably see it in other states.”

Still, the maneuver is a calculated risk.

“You’re already seeing it,” Taylor said. “[Democrats are] viewed as heroes on the Democrat side and the focus of all evil on Republican side.”

Disclosure: University of Texas at San Antonio has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.