After a nearly six-week exodus over GOP voting bill, enough Democrats return to Texas House to resume work

Houston state Rep. Armando Lucio Walle pushes Rep. Garnet Coleman in a wheelchair on the House floor on Aug. 19, 2021. State Rep. Ana Hernandez walked behind the duo.

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For the first time in nearly six weeks, state officials said there were enough lawmakers present in the Texas House on Thursday for the chamber to conduct business — opening the door for the passage of the GOP priority elections bill that Democrats have been attempting to kill for the past several weeks by staying far away from the Capitol.

The margin was razor thin on Thursday and it was unclear for hours before gaveling in whether Republicans had gotten enough members in the chamber to begin their work. Ultimately, 99 members voted that they were present with 49 stated absences. (The regular 100-member threshold for a quorum dropped to 99 on Thursday after San Antonio Democrat Leo Pacheco’s resignation went into effect.) The House then adjourned until 4 p.m. on Monday after referring a slew of bills to committee.

Even Republican State Rep. Steve Allison of San Antonio, who confirmed he was positive for COVID-19 a day earlier, showed up to the House to help swing the numbers — though he stayed isolated in a room on the side of the chamber.

“It’s time to get back to the business of the people of Texas,” said House Speaker Dade Phelan. “I appreciate every one of you. I’m looking forward to working with you over the coming week or two.”

The quorum was reached on Thursday with the help of three Democrats who broke ranks with other members still refusing to return — Houston Democrats Garnet Coleman, Armando Walle and Ana Hernandez. The three members arrived together with Walle pushing a wheelchair for Coleman, who’d recently undergone surgery on his leg.

In a joint statement, the three Democrats said they were “proud of the heroic work and commitment” their caucus had shown in breaking quorum.

“We took the fight for voting rights to Washington, D.C. and brought national attention to the partisan push in our state to weaken ballot access. Our efforts were successful and served as the primary catalyst to push Congress to take action on federal voter protection legislation,” the statement read. “Now, we continue the fight on the House Floor.”

Walle and Hernandez were among the more than 50 House Democrats who initially left the statehouse in July to travel to the nation’s capital to block the passage of the GOP elections bill. Coleman, who was recovering from serious illness, did not go to D.C. but participated in the quorum break from his home.

Those three Democrats join a smattering of other Democrats who have already trickled back to the chamber after initially participating in the quorum bust — like Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock; Joe Moody, Art Fierro and Mary Gonzáles of El Paso; and Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville.

But Democrats are not united in their return to the House. Many members are attempting to keep up the fight and have criticized their colleagues for defecting.

“This is how Texas Democrats lose elections,” Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, tweeted in response to the announcement that Walle, Hernandez and Coleman were returning.

Several of the lawmakers who were marked as present were not actually in the building Thursday, but had previously been in the chamber earlier this session.

One of the remaining Democrat holdouts, Rep. Diego Bernal of San Antonio, criticized House leaders for declaring a quorum when lawmakers claiming to be present were notably absent.

“The party arguing for ‘election integrity’ just established quorum by voting members present who weren’t on the floor,” he said on Twitter.

The House quorum on Thursday signals what could be the beginning of the end for Democrats who have staved off the passage of the GOP priority elections bill through multiple legislative sessions so far, despite being in the minority party in both chambers. The GOP elections bill would, among other things, outlaw local voting options intended to expand voting access and bolster access for partisan poll watchers. Democrats and voting rights advocates say it restricts voting rights in the state. Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature, say the proposal is intended to secure “election integrity.”

Democrats first orchestrated a plan in May to kill the voting legislation when they walked out of the House chamber in the final hours of the regular legislative session, preventing final passage before the clock ran out.

Abbott responded by calling a 30-day special session that began in July. That led to more than 50 Democrats leaving Texas to camp out in Washington, D.C. — away from the reach of Texas law enforcement officials — for several weeks.

The Democrats successfully blocked the bill’s passage during that session, which ended Aug. 6. But Abbott, who made the elections bill and a bail bill priorities this year, immediately called another 30-day session to push the bills forward. Abbott has said he won’t stop calling lawmakers back into session until the elections bill is passed.

The second special session began Aug. 7 without a quorum in the House, with most Democrats initially committing to staying away from the state Capitol — even as House leadership deployed law enforcement to conduct civil arrests and return them to the chamber. Those warrants to secure the presence of the lawmakers "by arrest, if necessary" were dissolved Thursday with the meeting of a quorum and the chamber's adjournment.

Although the House reached the minimum number of lawmakers to conduct official business Thursday, it’s unclear whether the chamber will be able to maintain those numbers for the duration of the second special session, which ends Sept. 5.

The three returning Democratic lawmakers pointed to the surge in COVID-19 cases in the state, an overwhelmed hospital system and the return of children to school as efforts that the Legislature needed to work on.

“It is time to move past these partisan legislative calls, and to come together to help our state mitigate the effects of the current COVID-19 surge by allowing public health officials to do their jobs, provide critical resources for school districts to conduct virtual learning when necessary, while also ensuring schools are a safe place for in-person instruction, and will not become a series of daily super-spreader events,” they said in their statement.

Lawmakers will also have to repair relationships that were fractured during the quorum break. Republicans frowned upon Democrats who called the elections legislation “Jim Crow 2.0,” saying the implication was that they were racists. Democrats said Republicans have rolled over the minority party the entire year and have not negotiated in good faith to bring a resolution to the quorum break or to their concerns with the voting legislation.

In an invocation, Coleman alluded to that friction between the two sides.

“I pray that all of us look inside, about where we want this world to go, this state, this house and look at it from the perspective of trying to find as much common ground as could be had,” he said.

In the Senate, which has already tackled many of the items on Abbott’s special session agenda, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated the House’s return.

“The Texas Senate welcomes the House to the 87th Second Called Special Session,” Patrick said on Twitter.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

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Correction, Aug. 20, 2021: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated the Senate had already passed all of the items on the special session agenda. The Senate has not yet passed a bill to restore the Legislature's funding which is also on the agenda.