AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

How Far Can Texas Democrats Take the Quorum Break?

House Democrats are intent on staying in D.C. until this session’s GOP voting bill is dead. Beyond that, it’s unclear.

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It’s been 12 days since Texas House Democrats staged their dramatic quorum break to block the GOP’s election legislation, but it’s felt like an eternity. 

On July 12, more than 50 Democratic state representatives jumped on chartered planes to Washington, D.C., ensuring that the Texas House would not have enough members to operate and bringing Governor Greg Abbott’s nascent special session to a screeching halt. In Washington D.C., they planned to seize the national spotlight and push recalcitrant U.S. Senators to pass stalled-out voting rights legislation that could prevent Texas Republicans from further restricting state voting laws. 

When they landed in Washington, House Democrats acknowledged that the quorum break was a temporary solution to their more permanent predicament: being a minority party up against a radical majority party. “We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all our federal leaders to use that time wisely,” Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said. 

As political fugitives on the lam, their exodus was met with a frenzy of media attention. They got meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Joe Manchin, and just about any other politician with a pulse who would have them. Democrats on Capitol Hill and around the country cheered them on as champions for democracy, while Republicans back in Austin taunted them for running away from a fight. But as the days have worn on, the battle has settled into a relative stasis. 

 While House Democrats have had a lot of meetings with federal lawmakers, it’s not clear whether they’ve made any inroads with their attempts to convince recalcitrant Democratic senators like Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, who want to preserve the filibuster that is preventing passage of voting rights legislation. Soon after their meeting, Manchin, a Democrat, jumped on a Houston-bound plane for a fundraiser with Republican oil and gas donors. This week, Washington became entirely consumed by a fight over the massive federal infrastructure package and several errant Texas Democrats have been forced to lobby from hotel-room quarantines after a COVID-19 mini-outbreak.

In Austin, Republicans have blown plenty of hot air, threatening to arrest Democrats and lock them in the Capitol, and using retired teachers as political props. But beyond the theatrics, they’re largely powerless to do anything other than wait for House Democrats to run out of steam. And with the initial glow of quorum break fading, and two weeks left in the special session, it’s looking more and more likely that the U.S. Senate won’t save them.

Some quorum breakers say that they have already accomplished their mission. “The goal here is not just to make sure the election bill doesn’t pass. We’re also here to change the narrative and to move the needle on passing national legislation that protects all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, Texans, everyone,” Houston Democrat Gene Wu told Texas reporters on a Zoom call this week. “We’re going to be successful because we’ve already done what we set out to do in Washington, D.C.”

Meanwhile, Republicans have gleefully watched as a trickle of House Democrats have returned to the House chambers. On Wednesday, House GOP Caucus Chair Jim Murphy said that there were now 91 members present, nine away from reaching quorum. “We’re getting closer every day,” he said. “We’re kind of on the bubble now, time-wise and numbers-wise.” San Antonio Democrat Philip Cortez was coaxed back from Washington, apparently with GOP assurances that he would have a seat at the table to negotiate changes to the bill. But his caucus colleagues say he abandoned them and is undermining their efforts. Fellow San Antonio Representative Ina Minjarez lashed out at Cortez for his “defection,” implying that he may have struck a deal with Republicans to get a committee chairmanship. “It’s disheartening that some representatives might value a gavel over protecting the voting rights of all Texans,” she said. 

Caucus leaders say that enough members remain fully committed to the quorum break through the end of the special session, but it appears that they’ll then come back to Texas. Representative Trey Martinez Fischer—a veteran of the last Democratic quorum break in 2003—said that their plan is to return on August 7, the final day of the special session. “Then we will evaluate our next option,” he said. Governor Greg Abbott has pledged to call one special session after another until Democrats return and an “election integrity” bill passes.

Meanwhile, Governor Abbott—who is facing three primary challengers from the right—is under immense pressure to assume a tough stance that gives no quarter to Democrats. Abbott has pledged to detain Democrats upon their arrival back in Texas and lock them in the legislative chambers until an election bill reaches his desk. 

Unless Abbott—actually Speaker Dade Phelan—makes good on the threat to lock lawmakers in, ramming through a hardline elections bill in a subsequent special session risks inciting another quorum break—perhaps by Senate Democrats this time. That’s what happened during the last quorum break in 2003 when House Democrats hid out at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma, for several weeks to block the GOP’s aggressive gerrymandering scheme. When they eventually came back, Senate Democrats then broke quorum, holing up in New Mexico for more than 40 days. Then-Governor Rick Perry repeatedly called special sessions until Democratic Senator John Whitmire finally decided to return—saying he saw no way for Democrats to succeed—and restored the Senate’s quorum. 

The threat of repeated quorum breaks does give Democrats some leverage, thanks to Abbott’s veto of the budget for the legislative branch: Come September 1, legislative staffers will no longer get paid. If the Legislature is actually defunded, that jeopardizes Republicans’ plans to redraw the state’s political maps this fall—a top priority as congressional Republicans try to take the U.S. House in 2022. 

Democrats hope that killing the GOP’s election bills twice will force Republicans to dial back in the next special session. “I’m hoping that the resistance Republicans are feeling right now—that it’s remembered,” Dallas Representative Jasmine Crockett said. “And they will never know when we will push back and so they will temper their ridiculousness and their boldness to do wrong.”

But the GOP so far shows no sign of moderating. After Senate Democrats held a press conference at the Texas Capitol on Wednesday and pledged  to do everything in their power to kill the elections bill in the upper chamber, Dan Patrick immediately followed with his own. He spent more than 30 minutes accusing Democrats of lying about the details of the new, pared-down bill and condemning them for calling his “election integrity” efforts “Jim Crow 2.0.” 

At various points in the regular session, Senate Republicans rammed through legislation that would have removed polling locations from communities of color, allowed poll watchers to take video of voters casting ballots, given judges the power to overturn the results of elections with alleged fraud, and effectively end “Souls to the Polls” voting drives that are popular in Black churches. The latter two would have become law if House Democrats hadn’t busted quorum the first time. 

Over in the House, right-wing state Representative Steve Toth filed a bill to conduct a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election results. Conveniently, the proposed Texas audit would only target the 13 most-populous counties that are home to the vast majority of Democratic voters. Twenty House Republicans signed on to the bill. Don Huffines, the right-wing former state senator and Abbott primary opponent, quickly endorsed the bill, soon followed by Attorney General Ken Paxton.  

It’s only surprising that it took so long. The Trumpian forces in the Texas GOP are double-dog daring Abbott to take yet another step their way. And when this governor hears rustling to his right, he’s liable to do just about anything.