A Texas Standoff

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S1: So, Ashleigh, how long has the Texas State House been without a quorum now?

S2: Well, technically since the beginning of June, but it’s been several weeks now that the House has been been unable to do practically anything.

S1: Ashley Lopez is a reporter for Cutie, the public radio station in Austin, Texas. She covers state politics.

S2: It’s really messy. I mean, I. I don’t think I’ve ever seen state governance so chaotic here. And it’s not like, you know, Texas has always been like such a flower, you know, just like not doing anything like Texas. Politics has always been kind of nuts. But, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like this

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S1: for a couple of months now, Democratic lawmakers in Texas have been locked in a battle with the state’s Republicans. At issue are proposed restrictions on voting in July. The battle intensified when a bunch of state House Democrats skipped town denying their chamber a quorum that made it impossible for the rest of the state House to even consider legislation. The Texas Democrats chose as their exile the home of good governance and political compromise in Washington, D.C.. They were there to hide out. They were also there to lobby Congress to pass federal voting protections.

S3: Today, more than 50 Democratic members of the Texas House left Austin and left Texas. Not because we want to. It breaks your heart that we have to do it, but we do it because we are in a fight to save our democracy.

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S1: Are the quorum breakers being called anything like do they have a nickname like the Quorum Busters or the rogue Democrats or the Austin Diaspora, the Texas 57? I mean, I’m right. I’m writing my movie treatment now, as you can tell.

S2: I know that I think about it. I don’t think I’ve heard anything catchy yet. I don’t think I’ve heard anything that’s kind of like a missed opportunity, I guess. Yeah, I think everyone’s just been like the like referring to them as like those Texas House Democrats that left.

S1: What the Texas House Democrats have left behind is a hamstrung state legislature and a ticked off Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has promised to wait this whole thing out.

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S4: I can and I will continue to call a special session after special session after special session all the way up until election next year

S1: for the Democrats that left the state. Does anyone know if they’re ever coming back?

S2: Oh, this is the big question. I mean, they have to. Right. Eventually.

S1: Why do they have to?

S2: Well, these people all have jobs outside of the Texas legislature. This is only like a Part-Time gig. Like lawmakers are not full time lawmakers in Texas, you know, and then they all have family, too, here in Texas. And you can’t indefinitely presumably live in another state, you know, forever. And I think that’s what the Republicans are sort of counting on.

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S1: Usually on this show, we like to talk about things that are happening today. We’re taking you where the action isn’t. The Texas state legislature and Ashley Lopez will explain what a partisan stalemate has wrought. I’m Mary Wilson filling in for Mary Harris. This is what next? Keep listening. What is happening in Austin these days, like what is the Capitol building like right now?

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S2: Well, it’s very wet right now. There is actually a storm that came through. And so there is flooding in the Capitol, which I think is just like on top of everything. Like it’s just so chaotic here that, of course, there was a flood, like, what’s next? Locusts. The Senate, however, has been hard at work. They have passed most of their agenda, I think pretty much all of it at this point. They just can’t send it anywhere. So they’ve been holding committee hearings, passing bills, voting them out on the floor. There was even a filibuster on that big voting bill that Democrats, you know, left to avoid getting passed. And so, you know, it’s kind of like it’s kind of strange. It’s like one part of the Capitol is completely at a standstill. But at least the Senate has gotten some stuff done. And it’s it’s been pretty interesting to watch.

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S1: Mm hmm. I want to talk a little bit about the voting bill that is, of course, at the center of this, you know, broken quorum and stalemate in Austin. This is all about stopping a plan that would narrow voting access in Texas. And, you know, you’ve written a lot about this. Is it fair to say this proposal is a lot like the proposals popping up in GOP led states across the country where Republicans want to restrict voting access? Is that fair?

S2: It isn’t. It isn’t. I think it’s coming from the same sort of like it’s reacting to the same thing. Like all these bills are reacting to the 20 20 election and Republican base voters who believe the election was stolen. But I think people need to remember that Texas is a place that already outlawed a lot of the things that other states are outlawing. This is already one of the most restrictive places to cast a ballot, you know, like where states are limiting vote by mail and drop boxes. We already had one of the most limited vote by mail programs in the country. Vote by mail drop boxes were always illegal here. So Texas is a starting point for adding voting restrictions is very different than the rest of the country. You know, the bill is always going to be different. Coming out of a state like Texas are voting restrictions just start in a different place here.

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S1: And, you know, to be clear, when you say it’s different, it sounds like it’s more it sounds like it’s rather draconian. Right.

S2: You know, it depends who you ask. Right. So Democrats are upset about this, because if you give people an opportunity to vote in one way and then remove it the next one, that is making it harder to vote from one election to the next. But overall, would this affect like long term traditions of voting statewide? No, it wouldn’t. But the truth is, there’s just like not a lot of places to cut. It’s already it’s like it’s hard to like to appeal to people, to like about how hard it is actually to vote here. Like, we don’t have online voter registration, even though most of the country does like there’s really just like not a lot of places to make changes. So to Democrats, it feels draconian because it’s like you’re making it harder to vote in the few ways that people actually can vote here. I mean, I think the bigger thing to watch for that I’m interested in is just how much is being criminalized in the voting process. So, you know, the sort of direct access stuff is not as big compared to what states like Georgia and Florida are doing. But definitely, I think the criminalization of. Like assisting voters and stuff like that, I think that is where the most eyebrows will be raised in the long run,

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S1: would the bill criminalize sending applications to people to vote by mail?

S2: Yeah, it would outlaw the ability of county election officials to send people applications for vote by mail, not a vote by mail ballot, just the application for one.

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S1: So people have to ask for that application if they’re going to get it.

S2: Yes, they have to apply to apply, basically. Yeah. And so during the pandemic, you know, especially in bigger cities, you know, county election officials were really nervous about people showing up in person at a time where, you know, remember, we didn’t have the vaccine, though, and it was a really scary time. And county election officials wanted to keep the numbers of in-person voting down, you know, especially if you’re disabled or older. That was already also the most vulnerable population for the pandemic, but also happened to be one of the few community like populations that could vote by mail. So they preemptively sent them applications because, you know, in most counties, that form of voting is underutilized. And so they thought this would have the added benefit of keeping those populations safe, but also keeping in-person numbers low. And so lawmakers came back and are now trying to basically make that illegal.

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S1: I want to zoom out again and talk about quorum breaking in the Texas legislature, the big quorum break I read about was in 2003, and it’s when Texas Democrats went to Oklahoma and then New Mexico. They were trying to stop an unfavorable redistricting plan and eventually they had to come back and the new district lines passed anyway. But this time, what Democrats in Texas say is different is that Congress can help and that’s why a bunch of them are in D.C. How how is that going? How how’s the lobbying of senators and Congress going?

S2: Well, as of today, Congress has not passed has not passed a voting bill. You know, I think like they’ve taken a lot of meetings. And I think the more important one that they took was with Joe Manchin, because anyone who’s been paying attention to this knows that, you know, right now, Democrats just don’t have the numbers in the Senate to break a filibuster. And it seems like Democrats haven’t convinced him to do that yet. In fact, right after they they took a meeting with him a couple of weeks ago, he told the press that he had not changed his mind about the filibuster. So anything concrete has not happened yet.

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S1: On August 6th, some of the Texas Democrats who fled to Washington spoke to reporters about the progress they had made. This is State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer.

S4: We are encouraged by Leader Schumer expressing his desire to have a vote before the August recess, which might get extended. If you need to have a record about voting discrimination in the history of this country, come to Texas. We can fill you in. We’re here because of voter suppression. And so whether we’re on this voter suppression session or some future voter suppression session, our minds have not changed. Our resolve will continue this.

S1: Maybe that’s why quorum breaks don’t tend to work in Texas, because if you’re one of the quorum breakers, your sense of resolve is the only leverage you have.

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S2: It’s like power hasn’t shifted. Republicans still have the ability to pass legislation. It’s just more like a stalling tactic. So that’s kind of what always happens is like they stall. It is like Democrats will break quorum or filibuster and they’ll start as much as they can. But like once everything is said and done, like Republicans still have the numbers, they still have the power to pass legislation. So I don’t think there’s, you know, a history of this doing more than just stalling legislation they don’t like.

S1: More with Ashley Lopez after the break. While the Texas Democrats have been on the run, Republicans in the state have tried to escalate this standoff. Can you tell us some of the ways Republicans have tried to put the screws to Democratic lawmakers?

S2: Well, a couple of ways. So the House somewhat quickly after Democrats last left, called a quorum and sent out arrest warrants. I think now twice for Democrats. How were

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S1: they able to call a quorum to send out arrest warrants but not able to call a quorum to do legislative

S2: work? Yeah, so they call called quorum to take a vote to see if they have a quorum, basically. And then once they fell short, they were like, OK, now we can send out arrest warrants to bring to have state police bring these people back if they’re in the state, OK. And the reason why Democrats are in Washington is because state police obviously has no jurisdiction in Washington. So they can’t be called back. But presumably, if, like one of them, any of those Democrats in Washington were to set foot in Texas, they could be arrested and brought back to the Capitol. And, you know, even though it’s like they’re not going to be put in jail, what likely is to happen in state police will grab them and just, you know, put them in the capital to do their job and vote. It’s still kind of like, you know, it’s not exactly friendly behavior, you know, calling for someone’s arrest and detainment.

S1: The irony of these arrest warrants is that the person signing them is someone many Democratic lawmakers supported. At one point, Dade Felin, the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Many observers, including Ashely, thought the bipartisan backing for Felin was a sign that this legislative session would be amiable. Instead, what she’s seen is an erosion of the personal relationships that used to smooth over partisan divides.

S2: They feel they want to be the speaker without a bunch of Democrats getting together and picking him. And, you know, they started the session with like this this leader who both parties had agreed upon for the most part. And I remember, you know, one of the first speeches I heard was a lawmaker here in Austin basically thanking everyone in the House, Republicans and Democrats. Her name is Donna Howard. She thanked everyone for like being there for her because her husband had gotten very sick and had a very slow recovery and eventually died. And so she was widowed over the summer and she had, like, thanked everyone. And I don’t know, it was just like the session started with a lot more bipartisanship and just like friendship among these people, especially compared to where we are now, it’s almost like it was a different time. It’s hard to think it was just a couple it was just several months ago was the same year. So, yeah. And now it’s like there’s these arrest warrants. Democrats fled the state because they feel like they can’t even talk to these people. They can’t even talk to Republicans. It’s just yeah, it’s it’s like you’re watching like the like like sort of like a marriage fall apart in front of your face.

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S1: Texans could use a working legislature. Right now, they’re in the middle of a huge covid surge. Hospitalizations are up and state officials have ordered mortuary trucks to store the bodies of the dead. On Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott himself tested positive for covid-19. There’s also the matter of the state’s isolated electrical grid. It failed last February during winter storms, leaving more than four million households without power for days. Hundreds of people are estimated to have died as a result.

S2: What happened earlier this year in the winter storm I think upset both Republicans and Democrats. This was a sign that things are not working well. There needs to be reform of some kind. And that is a place where every Texan would like to see their lawmakers put attention. I can’t think of a single person I’ve talked to from either party say like, oh, I’m OK with the electrical grid situation. Everyone here is living in constant fear that the grid will collapse. You know, even this summer, we had another little scare where, you know, it looked like the grid might not be like there might have to be rolling blackouts again or, you know, just blackouts across the state again. And so that is a place where I think there could be common ground, because I know Republicans and Democrats alike are concerned about it. And, you know, just to just the last session, lawmakers found a lot of common ground. They worked on a lot of bipartisan issues, education, you know, money for teachers, stuff like that. Like when when there is. The the desire, the political will to work in a bipartisan way, the Texas legislature has found a way and it’s just right now I don’t. There doesn’t seem to be the political will to do that.

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S1: Well, and for whatever reason, the parties view another failure to the power grid to be less perilous to their political future than, you know, what happens to two voting access.

S2: Right. You know, I also feel like Republicans and I want to be fair to Republicans. I feel like they’re in a little bit of a bind to this isn’t an issue that really Republicans in Texas created. This was their party leader, Donald Trump, who started the big lie. But, you know, now their base believes it. And I’m not saying that Republicans in the legislature don’t also believe the big lie. But even if they didn’t, as a Republican lawmaker, if you know your base and your constituents believe that an election was stolen and that voter fraud is real, how could you not address it now to the extent that they’re, you know, issuing arrest warrants? That’s a whole other conversation. But I don’t think it is surprising that Texas is one of the states that introduced, you know, voting legislation like this. You know, this is a state where Republican voters have a lot of sway. Elections are won or lost in primaries pretty much. And if they weren’t addressing this very big concern from their base, they would have a political cost for that. And I think that calculation they’re making is true.

S1: The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has said he will just keep calling special sessions to try to get Democrats who have fled the state to come back and vote on this voting bill. And maybe more to the point, to make it hard for them to stay outside the state and to stay away from their homes and to stay away from their families. Is there any backstop? Is there anything that could stop the constant, like the the Groundhog Day of another special session and another special session?

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S2: Well, according to the governor, the only thing that will stop it is a voting bill gets passed and sent to his desk. Yeah. So that’s kind of where we’re at. I don’t think anyone right now is looking at what the middle ground looks like, Ashleigh.

S1: I don’t know if you can answer this question, but this just leaves me with this, like, how does this possibly end? And one thing it makes me wonder is back in 2003, when Democrats had their last big quorum break in Texas, did they get hauled back into the state by by state police and compelled to vote on bills? Is that how that ended? Is that how you expect this one to end?

S2: You know, it’s hard to sort of play like magic ball and figure out, like, how this is all going to end. I can tell you, like just looking at the chessboard, what’s probably going to happen is someone’s going to have to give in. And I don’t think it’s going to be Republicans. They have all the power. They have the ability to just wait out Democrats. So it’s likely going to be like two thousand three. It’s going to likely be that at some point, Democrats are going to have to come back to the state, go back to the Capitol and, you know, vote against bills that they’re really concerned about. That’s what’s likely to happen.

S1: Ashley Lopez, thank you so much.

S2: Thank you.

S1: Ashley Lopez is a reporter for Cutie, the public radio station in Austin, Texas. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Davis Land, Carmel Delshad and Danielle Hewitt, Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Make sure we always have a quorum. I’m Mary Wilson filling in for Mary Harris. She’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.