AUSTIN — The Texas House voted Tuesday to issue arrest warrants for absent Democrats who have avoided the Capitol in order to stymie a Republican elections bill they say would harm minorities.
The vote was 80-12, and came hours after the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for the House to order fugitive lawmakers back to the chamber to secure a quorum.
A roundup won’t begin unless Speaker Dade Phelan signs warrants, and his inclinations seem clear. He joined with Gov. Greg Abbott in asking the high court to authorize the tactic and in fact signed one such warrant during the first special session.
One Republican voted against authorizing arrest warrants: Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, who has been openly critical of the elections bill that Abbott has demanded.
“Have we got to the point where we believe our own bull shizz so much that we arrest our own colleagues,” Larson tweeted. “Civil discourse took a nasty turn today.”
Fugitive Democrats remain defiant, and an untold number are outside the reach of the House sergeant-at-arms and state troopers.
“I just question whether DPS or anyone can break down my door to come and put me in shackles and drag me there,” state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, an Austin Democrat, told The Dallas Morning News. “I feel certain that I can stay in my home, and stay off the House floor.”
At least two dozen House Democrats have stayed in Washington, D.C., where 57 of them camped out for all or most of a month to run out the clock on Abbott’s first special session.
“We broke quorum because anti-voter bills are nefarious attempts to disenfranchise Texans & these authoritarian motions by Republicans just cement that we are on the right side of history,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, wrote on Twitter. “We must hold the line against these desperate attempts to destroy our democracy.”
The governor called the Legislature into special session last month to reconsider a measure that House Democrats had blocked with an eleventh-hour walkout in May, at the end of the regular biennial session.
Democrats used the same tactic to stymie action in the special session and claimed victory when that session expired.
But Republicans are determined to wear them down, and Abbott immediately ordered a second special session that began on Saturday.
Nineteen of the Democrats who broke quorum last month sought protection in a Travis County court. On Monday, District Judge Brad Urrutia signed an order to prevent arrests for 14 days.
Early Tuesday, Abbott and Phelan asked the Texas Supreme Court to overturn that order, and the justices quickly agreed.
It wouldn’t take many arrests for the House to be back in business. A quorum requires two-thirds of the 150 members on site. Since Monday, 96 House members have checked in as present — just four shy.
During their self-imposed exile in Washington, the Texas Democrats have lobbied the White House and potential swing votes in the U.S. Senate for federal voting rights bills that would supersede anything Republicans can get through the Legislature.
And they got a glimmer of good news shortly after learning they’d be subject to arrest, when U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced that he would cut short the summer recess, calling the U.S. House back on Aug. 23 to take up a budget bill and one of the voting rights measures.
That bill, named for the late civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, would reimpose a screening process that required Texas and other states with a history of discrimination to obtain permission from the Justice Department before changing any election procedures, from moving a polling site to redrawing a congressional district.
Such “preclearance” was required for nearly a half-century under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, until the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped it in 2013. Since then, GOP-controlled legislatures have rushed to tighten voter ID requirements and other rules, and the tempo of legislation that Democrats say is aimed at hampering nonwhite voters has increased since Donald Trump’s defeat amid false and baseless claims of fraud.
Texas Republicans insist their proposals are meant solely to boost election integrity and avert cheating.
And they have used a number of tactics to embarrass, cajole and pressure the Democrats, including the GOP-dominated Senate passing proposals such as a bill approved Tuesday to require public schools to offer instruction about the dangers of date rape.
The “Christine Blubaugh Act” is named after a 16-year-old from Grand Prairie who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2000 and is a priority for some North Texas lawmakers. But if the House Democrats don’t relent, said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, “this bill will die.”
Urrutia’s order prevented House members from being subject to a “call of the House.” GOP leaders claimed they could invoke such a call to order the House sergeant-at-arms to haul wayward lawmakers back to the Capitol, from anywhere in Texas.
Under House rules, voting on legislation requires a quorum. But votes to compel attendance of absent members, or to adjourn, do not.
“They just need to put them all in handcuffs, drag them in, throw them in the middle of chambers, lock the doors and unhandcuff ‘em ... a couple of them would go bug-eyed crazy,” said state Rep. Cecil Bell, a Magnolia Republican, in an interview with web show "The Undercurrent."
Attorney General Ken Paxton gloated at the GOP victory before the state’s high court.
“Another day, another Democrat defeat accomplished,” he wrote on Twitter. “Now let’s immediately bring the Democrats back so the business of Texas may continue!”
Even if Phelan does issue the warrants, it’s unclear whether enough members are in Texas to make a quorum.
House Democrats said Saturday that at least 26 of their members would remain in Washington.
Some are relatively easy to find, but the optics of hauling them away and locking them on the House floor would be risky for GOP leaders — for instance, state Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, who is recovering from the amputation of a foot.
It takes just 16 members to demand a call of the House, and if a majority of those present agree, doors to the chamber can be locked, with no members allowed to leave without the speaker’s permission.
“All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained,” the rules said.
Tuesday’s brief session opened with a prayer from state Rep. Chris Paddie, a Marshall Republican, that included a call for unity, better communication and a servant heart.
“Then the body immediately moved to arrest all those members not present. It was a beautiful moment, for the five seconds it lasted,” tweeted Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
Within moments, state Rep. Will Metcalf, a Conroe Republican, offered the motion to arrest absent colleagues.
House Republicans also voted to arrest their absent colleagues during the first special session, but Phelan signed only one arrest warrant, for state Rep. Philip Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat, and he was never apprehended.
Cortez had returned to Austin from Washington saying he hoped to negotiate changes to the GOP elections bill. He spent time in the House chamber and Phelan granted him permission to leave temporarily, on condition he return.
Cortez agreed, but didn’t come back, instead rejoining the fugitives in the nation’s capital.
With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in Austin and much of Texas, some legislators have expressed hesitancy to enter the Capitol.
Paxton’s office, in its filing on behalf of the governor and speaker, argued to the Supreme Court that Abbott and Phelan have the authority to use law enforcement to retrieve members.
“Compelling the attendance of absent members by the House is a quintessential legislative act,” the petition read.