Politics

This Is Texas Democrats’ Nuclear Option

Politicians stand in front of the Capitol, behind a sign that reads "TXHDC: Texas House Democratic Caucus"
Texas state House Democrats speak during a news conference on voting rights outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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Back in May, Texas Democrats walked out of a legislative session in the state House after they realized they had no other way to block a notoriously oppressive voting bill. This time, that bill is a little different: Texas Republicans threw Dems some bones by removing language that would limit Sunday voting, for instance—but there’s still plenty to take issue with. Republicans want to cut voting hours, limit absentee voting, and expand rights for partisan poll watchers.So this week, with the stakes so high, more than 50 Democratic state representatives boarded private jets bound for D.C.—hundreds of miles out of a Texas state trooper’s reach. Conveniently, D.C. is also where federal Democrats are stubbornly refusing to pass national election reform. What’s Texas Democrats’ ultimate strategy, and how long can they stall this voting bill? To find out, I spoke with Jessica Huseman, an editorial director at Votebeat who covers Texas election law, and lawmakers, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jessica Huseman: A lot of Democrats don’t even really know how this is going to play out, because, frankly, this is basically unprecedented in Texas history. They have decided that the only thing available to them to stop the bill is breaking quorum, which is mathematically true. And they’ve decided to break quorum in the most dramatic way possible, which is to take for-profit charter jets to D.C. to sit on the steps of the Senate capital and stare angrily at Joe Manchin as he walks past.

In this special session, we had 48 hours when the bill was going to be heard, and the text of the bill was only produced 24 hours in advance. It’s a very long bill. Legislators who were having to question witnesses on the floor hadn’t even had a chance to read the full bill. And so it was a very rushed proceeding. And then at the very end of both the Senate and the House hearings, the Republicans voted it straight to the floor. None of them changed their minds. I think everybody had made up their minds from the beginning.

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And I what really set Democrats’ plan in motion was that Republicans made it as difficult as possible to speak in opposition to the bill, and what they did was technically allowed under the rules. They made it as difficult as possible for the public to get transparency on the bail hearing because it was at 3 in the morning. And then at the end of all of that, putting the public through all of that, they voted straight to the floor anyway without considering any Democratic amendments, without making any substantial changes to the bill, and without really hearing what the people who were speaking in opposition to the bill were saying. And there was a stunning public show of opposition to this bill.

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Mary Harris: I feel like we should say, nearly 500 people said they wanted to talk about this bill, and about 400 of them said they were opposed to the legislation. So it was overwhelming who in the public showed up here.

Absolutely overwhelming. I think it says a lot about the current state of Texas politics, that not only did Republicans not change their minds, but they also chose not to moderate the legislation in the ways the public was specifically asking them to.

When did you begin to get the sense that Democrats might be thinking of walking out the door?

They had this plan in their back pocket for a couple of days. I started hearing hushed whispers about a walkout in the Capitol the night before it happened and was able to confirm it early the next morning when I called a representative whom I shan’t name, and they were actively zipping up their suitcase as I was talking to them on the phone.

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Like you could hear it?

They were zipping it up, throwing things in bags. And their words were like, Call me later. I can’t talk right now. I called a second legislator and she was also zipping up her suitcase and walking out the door. I think that the caucus didn’t even know exactly when they were going to go.

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The last time a walkout of this scale happened in Texas was in 2003. Back then, state Democrats were protesting redistricting. Legislators fled just across the state border to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Some reporters played the whole thing for laughs. This time feels different, with Texas Democrats taking their grievances to Washington. On Tuesday morning, they gathered on the steps of the Capitol in a showy display of solidarity.

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What they have said to me is that they’re waiting for federal legislation. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say Texas Democrats are pissed at their national counterparts. Their perspective is, We get paid only $6,000 a year, but you have a majority in Congress, and you get paid full time to do this job. What the hell are you doing? They have not minced words. One rep called me and said we wouldn’t have to do this if Democrats would just pass the damn bill. And there was a lot of simplifying in that. It’s not an easy road for federal Democrats to pass a voting rights bill in Congress—I feel like the earliest Democrats are going to introduce any federal legislation is going to be a month from now. So I don’t know if holding out for Democrats to pass a bill nationally is going to get them to where they need to be, because these timetables are very different.

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You’ve said these Democratic lawmakers have to figure out a strategy. They’re juggling the concerns of all kinds of constituents, some of whom care about the voting rights issue, some who do not. So the endgame is kind of unclear, especially when Texas Republican Gov. Abbott can continue to call special session after special session to get what he wants.

I think there are a couple of different endgames, which is I think setting a lot of Democrats’ teeth on edge, as the caucus is not necessarily in agreement. Some of them say the endgame is waiting it out until the job is done in D.C. Other Democrats say the endgame is forcing Republicans to moderate the bill and then they’ll return and vote on it once.

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They do have so many other reasons to return to state that are not just the Legislature. I think the calculation Abbott is making right now is that they can’t stay away forever. And he’s right. They can’t.

With a special session like this, Abbott has the power to decide the kinds of bills lawmakers will consider. But you realized Abbott hadn’t done anything to convince his Democratic colleagues to work with him rather than against him.

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This was actually really surprising to me. The laundry list of bills for consideration in the special session is essentially a grab bag of everything Republicans wanted to pass in the regular session and didn’t get to. So we’ve got trans sports bills. We have got a bail bill that would make it harder for people who have committed certain crimes to get out on a cash bail before their trial, which Democrats are deeply opposed to. We have a pretty bad abortion bill that is floating up to the top of the Legislature. There is a relief bill for property taxes in Texas—which, it should be noted, doesn’t have an income tax. Property taxes are the biggest way that we collect taxes, so Democrats don’t really want that relief either. It’s really a laundry list of conservative priorities.

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Is there a chance that, politically, everyone is kind of getting what they want here? Like, Democrats get to look righteous, Republicans get to say they tried to pass the most conservative agenda they’ve tried to get through in a long time, but neither actually has to make it work.

I think Republicans don’t necessarily need to pass this bill. What they need to do is convince their base that Democrats don’t support it because they want illegal voting to take place and they want the system to be less secure. On the other hand, Democrats don’t necessarily have to stop the bill from passing in order to win a political battle here. If they can convince the public at large that Republicans don’t want minorities to vote, then that can spur a really big drive to the polls. We saw that in Georgia, for example.

But it might be hard to measure in Texas because people here don’t vote anyway—we’re consistently ranked near last among states in voter turnout. Now we’re making it even harder, and we’re pretending like people want to vote so badly that they’ll commit fraud to do it. It’s a very silly place to be in.

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