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Texas Democrat plans filibuster of GOP voting bill in state Senate as House lacks quorum

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Democrats on Wednesday continued to deny Republicans a quorum in the House, as Speaker Dade Phelan delivered 52 civil arrest warrants to state law enforcement to corral the absent members.

A group of nearly 60 Democrats left the state a month ago in an attempt to block passage of a GOP-backed voting bill during the first special session of the year and most have yet to return to the Capitol.

Four days into the second special session, House Republicans on Tuesday voted to direct state law enforcement to bring absent members to the floor, the second time such a vote has been taken during the quorum-bust. The use of civil arrest warrants is not mandatory under the vote, but an option that Phelan, a Republican from Beaumont, has decided to use.

The House gaveled in briefly Wednesday for those lawmakers present on the floor to collect their permission slips to leave the chamber for the day. The chamber will return to session Thursday afternoon.

The Texas Senate, meantime, began debate Wednesday afternoon on Senate Bill 1, the GOP-backed voting and elections bill that is similar to legislation that inspired the Democratic walkout in the House. Republicans argue that the bill will improve election integrity, while Democrats say the measure will disenfranchise voters.

But while senators were debating proposed amendments, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, announced her intention to filibuster the legislation, delaying a final vote on the bill by speaking over an extended period.

During a filibuster, Alvarado would be limited to speaking on issues relevant to SB 1 without sitting or leaning on her desk, leaving the floor for a bathroom break or eating or drinking.

Alvarado's filibuster was expected to begin later Wednesday, the fifth day of a special session that can last no longer than 30 days. Alvarado's filibuster was expected to begin later Wednesday, the fifth day of a special session that can last 30 days.

While the House has been unable to take official action, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has the Senate on a fast-paced schedule including committee hearings and floor debates on major items from Gov. Greg Abbott's special session agenda.

Debate over the voting bill Wednesday came after senators took an initial vote on a bill designed to make future quorum breaks all but impossible — Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would lower the quorum requirement for the House and Senate from two-thirds of members to a simple majority.

Because the change would require a voter-approved amendment to the Texas Constitution, SJR 1 must have support from 21 senators. An initial vote Wednesday, however, had only 19 senators voting in favor, with two senators absent — both Democrats.

Senators also voted along party lines to give initial approval to SB 3, limiting the way race can be discussed in Texas classrooms, and SB 14, barring city and county rules requiring businesses to offer paid leave, breaks and predictive scheduling for employees.

Like in the first special session, any approved legislation cannot be accepted by the House until a quorum is established.

As pressure mounts on the absent Democrats to return to the House, some advocacy groups issued urgent pleas for members to continue their quorum break.

"We are supporting all those who believe the right to vote, and our freedoms should not be rigged by Republicans elites and their 1% lobbyists," said Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"LULAC will challenge in the federal courts any infringements of Texans’ right to vote," Garcia said.

A group of more than a dozen lawmakers remain in Washington, even as some of their colleagues have returned home to Texas or traveled to other locations outside of the state. Democrats were able to avoid the reach of state law enforcement during the first special session of the year by crossing state lines.

“The speaker issued this warrant for my arrest last night,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, said in a tweet. Rodriguez is among those members still in Washington. “Arresting me is the only way they will get me back in that House.”

Some Democrats have returned to the floor during the second special session, including state Reps. James Talarico of Round Rock, Bobby Guerra of Mission, Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville and Joe Moody, Mary Gonzalez and Art Fierro of El Paso.

Phelan did not sign arrest warrants for those members, or for other Democrats who have been back in the chamber or never participated in the quorum break, including Reps. Terry Canales of Edinburg, Harold Dutton of Houston, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Tracy King of Batesville, Oscar Longoria of Mission, Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass and John Turner of Dallas.

He also did not sign a warrant for state Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, who stayed in Texas to recover from a major surgery in May.

Some Democrats have challenged Phelan’s authority to issue civil arrest warrants, filing two lawsuits in response to the warrants and other Republican efforts to bring them back to the House floor. One case was filed in federal court, and argues that these GOP efforts infringe on their constitutional rights. That is still pending.

The other case was filed in a Travis County state district court, where a judge issued an order to prohibit the arrest of absent members that was later blocked by the Texas Supreme Court in response to an emergency petition from Phelan and Gov. Greg Abbott.

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