Texas Democrats descend on US Capitol to lobby lawmakers on voting rights legislation
WASHINGTON – Texas House Democrats, hours after deplaning at an area airport in the middle of the night, arrived on Capitol Hill Tuesday to lobby members of Congress on voting rights legislation – all part of their latest effort to stop a vote on restrictive election laws in their state.
More than 50 lawmakers – who have battled Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the GOP-controlled Legislature in Austin for months over election changes – turned to Congress, which is at odds on a pair of voting rights bills aimed at protecting Americans at the ballot box.
The group left Texas Monday in a gambit to deny Republicans a quorum during a special session Abbott called to pass sweeping voting restrictions. A minimum number of lawmakers must be present to advance laws in Texas.
In front of the U.S. Capitol on a sweltering 90-degree day Tuesday, the Texas Democrats called on Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, bills aimed at expanding voting protections that have stalled in a divided Congress.
Abbott's call for a special session follows former President Donald Trump's repeated accusations of widespread election fraud, which he claims cost him a second term last year.
This is the second time this summer that Texas Democrats resorted to avoiding their House chamber. In May, they walked out of the state Capitol, insisting their absence was the only way to prevent the imposition of unnecessary restrictions built on Trump's "Big Lie."
Abbott called the special session, which is underway, on a number of issues, including two pieces of legislation that would curtail voting access in ways that Democrats said would disproportionately affect people of color.
"They are brave. They are bold. They are courageous. And history will show them on the side of right," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday from the Senate floor.
Schumer plans to meet with the group Tuesday afternoon in what he called a meeting "to plot out strategy and to praise them for what they are doing."
Schumer highlighted President Joe Biden's visit to Philadelphia on Tuesday, in which he will warn that the right to vote is under assault, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar's rules committee field hearing in Georgia next week on voting rights.
In addition to Schumer, the state lawmakers met with Vice President Kamala Harris Tuesday.
They'll also meet with Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. this week according to Senate aides.
Klobuchar met with the group the last time they visited Washington: In June, they pressed senators to pass the For the People Act. In a 50-50 partisan vote, Senate Republicans quashed the bill – an ambitious effort to overhaul U.S. elections. Democrats fell well short of the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster and hold a vote on the bill.
Democrats narrowly emerged with a united vote on the legislation after working overtime to unify in its favor as Republicans stood firm in opposition. Manchin was the last Democrat to come onboard after seeking to revise the bill. Texas Democrats secured a last-minute meeting with Manchin before the vote.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, described the state Democrats as "asylum seekers."
"The only oppressive force that these men and women are facing is the expectation that they would actually do their jobs in the Texas Legislature – the job they campaigned for and were elected to do," he said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told USA TODAY the Democrats did not ask to meet with him. Even if they do, Cruz said, he is not “particularly interested in participating in their political stunt.”
Texas Democrats said Monday night as they arrived in Washington that they would remain through Congress' legislative session and into August.
State Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democrat Caucus in Austin, told USA TODAY a specific time for their stay has "yet to be determined."
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, joked during the sweltering-hot news conference Tuesday that the group had "brought the Texas heat." Members of the group fanned themselves and fled to shade and House office buildings as soon as the presser ended.
Doggett said the news conference was to "honor them and their courage, their focus on not just what’s happening in Texas but what is happening right over there in the United States Senate."
Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchía, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said Abbott "poisoned" the special session when he "defunded the legislative branch." The governor vetoed part of the state's budget that funded the Legislature last month, a response to the Democrats' previous walkout.
Several of the speakers noted a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld an Arizona law that limits how absentee ballots may be returned, a ruling that critics asserted would make it more difficult for minorities to challenge laws they say are discriminatory.
Republicans in Texas and Washington accused the group of performing a publicity stunt, chiding the Democrats over the cost of chartering two flights from the Lone Star State to the nation's capital.
Turner confirmed a report made to the Austin American-Statesman that the House Democrat Caucus would pay the $100,000 cost of the two flights.
Cornyn said the Democrats ought to be in Austin debating the issues, "but rather than do their jobs in Texas, yesterday House Democrats abandoned our state and the millions of Texans they represent and they decamped to Washington, D.C."
Turner said Cornyn and Cruz "wrote the book on publicity stunts," and he encouraged Cornyn "to work in a bipartisan manner as the people of Texas elected him to do, to pass voting rights legislation to protect 30 million Texans that he says he represents."
At least 14 states have enacted laws that restrict voting access after last year’s presidential election as Trump spreads baseless claims that his loss to Biden was the result of widespread voter fraud.
"We are not going to buckle to the 'Big Lie' in the state of Texas. The 'Big Lie' that has resulted in anti-democratic legislation throughout the United States," Anchía said.
"We all know how this will end," Cornyn said. "They will eventually go home after the cameras leave and after the press loses interest in this political stunt. They will go home and participate in this political process."
Contributing: Brandon Mulder, John C. Moritz, Maria Recio, Amanda O'Donnell at the Austin American-Statesman; Michael Collins, USA TODAY