The return of three absent Democrats injected a new wave of uncertainty into the national battle over voting rights.
Aug. 20, 2021, 6:02 p.m. ET
HOUSTON — For weeks, Democratic lawmakers in Texas were hearing that select members would be breaking ranks and returning to the Capitol.
But as they gathered on Thursday morning for their daily Zoom call, there was no indication their 38-day walkout was about to fall apart.
More than 50 Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives fled Austin for Washington last month to prevent a quorum and effectively kill a sweeping election overhaul bill that would have introduced new restrictions to voting. Just one member, Garnet F. Coleman, had been expected to return to the Capitol on Thursday, still leaving Republicans two Democrats short of a quorum.
Later that same day, however, many Democratic legislators were shocked and disappointed when they saw two other members enter the House chamber with Mr. Coleman — enough to call the House to order and begin work on a lengthy list of conservative goals set by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.
By Friday, the tenuous alliance among Democratic House members split into open confrontation, as 34 of them released a joint statement criticizing their colleagues who returned to the Capitol. The caucus chairman, Chris Turner, did not sign on.
“We feel betrayed and heartbroken,” the Democratic members wrote in their joint statement. “But our resolve is strong and this fight is not over.”
State Representative Jessica González, a Democrat from near Dallas, said she was particularly frustrated with the suddenness of the decision, with no advance warning that the other Democrats would be returning.
“What’s most disheartening,” Ms. González said, “is that so many of us have stuck together on this, so many of us have made sacrifices, and the least that people can do is just at least have a conversation as a caucus, as a whole. That way people can make their own decisions, too.”
The return of the three absent Democrats on Thursday injected a new wave of uncertainty into the national battle over voting rights, one that will most likely be felt as far as Washington. The sudden crumbling of the Democratic blockade opened the door to passage of a new voting law containing restrictions Texas Democrats considered so strident they broke quorum twice.
But with passage of federal voting legislation still a long shot in Washington, Democrats in Texas find themselves with no clear path forward, and divisions remain on the best course of action.
The Texas House remains adjourned until Monday afternoon with no planned activity over the weekend. The voting bill, known as S.B. 1, passed the State Senate last week but has not advanced at all in the House. It was scheduled for a committee hearing on Monday, and would still need to go through another committee before it could come to the floor for a vote, setting up a potential showdown next week.
Some Republican representatives were not physically present in the Capitol on Thursday, despite being counted toward the total number there, leading many Democrats to claim the quorum was illegitimate.
But Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat who is the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said he believed the Republican leadership would rally their members by Monday and that it made sense for him to return to Austin now.
“There are a lot of bad bills,” Mr. Anchía said. “In no particular order, I’ve got a large L.G.B.T. population that I need to go fight for. I need to go fight for the parents of school-aged children who are unvaccinated.”
With a quorum in the House, Republicans could try to vote to suspend the normal rules and speed through a vote on the election bill and other bills on Monday. He said that in order to prevent that from happening, Democrats would be needed to vote against it.
“We need a core group of members there to make sure there is no vote to suspend the rules,” Mr. Anchía said.
Yet other Democrats held out hope that they could again prevent a quorum, given the thin margins involved.
“There is a core of us, myself included, who still want to continue this fight, and still want to hopefully bring enough Democrats back into our coalition of holding the line,” Ms. González said. “And so we haven’t given up.”
The anger some Democratic lawmakers felt toward their colleagues was palpable on Friday. But for John Whitmire, a long-serving Houston state senator, such a reaction was “a waste of time.”
“You can’t stay gone forever, even if some members would suggest such a move,” said Mr. Whitmire, who was among 11 breakaway Democrats who denied a quorum to the State Senate in 2003 to halt a redistricting bill by Republicans. After five weeks, he returned to Austin — the first among his colleagues to do so.
Mr. Whitmire said he had spoken with several of the absent House members about whether or not to return.
“I told them to do what they thought was best, to think for themselves and represent their districts,” Mr. Whitmire said.
Though the current election bill in Texas resembles the version from May that first sparked a Democratic walkout, Democrats did win some concessions and Republicans altered or removed some of the most restrictive provisions. Sunday voting hours remain protected, and Republicans added an extra hour of mandatory early voting for weekdays. A provision that was designed to make it easier to overturn elections was also completely removed.
But the bill still bans voting advancements from Harris County, home to Houston, that were enacted in the 2020 election, including drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, and it bans election officials from proactively sending out mail ballot applications, or promoting the use of vote by mail.
The bill also greatly empowers partisan poll watchers, weakening an election official’s authority over them and giving them greater autonomy at polling locations, and creates new barriers for those looking to help voters who require assistance, such as with translations.
The voting bill is far from the only item on Mr. Abbott’s agenda. The list also included a host of conservative goals, like restricting abortion access, limiting the ways that students are taught about racism, restricting transgender student athletes and tightening border security.
As Democrats fretted, Republicans celebrated, racing to the Capitol to fill ranks and give Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, enough members for a quorum.
The rush was enough to pull one member, Steve Allison, a Republican from near San Antonio, from isolation after he tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week. He remained by himself in a side room of the House chamber but was counted as present.