The great Democratic exodus from the Texas state legislature, aimed at preventing the passage of a restrictive state elections bill, came to a close after 38 days Thursday when three House Democrats returned to the state capitol. The returning Democrats said they broke with the more than 55 colleagues that made a break for Washington, D.C. last month due to the need to help the state navigate a surge in Covid-19 cases that has overwhelmed hospitals just as schools reopen for the year. The addition of the three lawmakers appeared to give the Republican-controlled legislature the necessary quorum to resume business during a special legislative session. The quorum will now allow the chamber to vote on a raft of GOP legislation, including the election bill that resembles other GOP-sponsored state laws around the country making it harder to vote.
The Texas House only appeared to resume quorum Thursday evening, however, because even as the trio of lawmakers returned, it was not totally clear that the necessary numbers had been reached. Republicans pulled out all the stops to try to lift the roll call to the 99 members needed for quorum (down from 100 due to a resignation in the House), including carting in a Republican state rep who had just the day before confirmed he had contracted Covid-19. The viral lawmaker was apparently kept isolated in a room on the side of the chamber amidst a chaotic scene at the state 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,” the Texas Tribune reports. “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.”
This latest special legislative session called by Texas’ Republican governor Greg Abbott is set to end on Sept. 5. The Democratic caucus had pledged to stay away from the state through the previous special legislative session that ended in early August. The Texas legislature only meets for a handful of months every other year, such that procedural delays can have more obstructionist bite than in other states. The state government of Texas, however, is heavily tilted in Republicans’ favor and Gov. Abbott had pledged to call month-long special sessions over and over until Democrats returned to the statehouse.
The return of the three Democratic lawmakers rankled some their Democratic colleagues, who were taken by surprise by what they viewed as a defection. “We were literally on caucus calls for 2 hours this morning and none of the defecting Democrats mentioned they were planning on helping the Republicans pass voter suppression bills,” Democratic state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos tweeted Thursday. “Guess what the other defecting Democrats have accomplished by going back—NOTHING!”
For more on what led to Texas Democrats’ quorum fight over voting rights, listen to this episode of What Next.