AUSTIN — For the first time in nearly six weeks, state officials said there were enough lawmakers present in the Texas House on Thursday for the chamber to conduct business — opening the door for the passage of the GOP priority elections bill that prompted Democrats to flee the state in July in an effort to shut down the legislation.
On a vote of 99-0 with 49 stated absences, the House reached a quorum Thursday and referred a slew of bills to committees. (The regular 100-member threshold for a quorum dropped to 99 on Thursday after San Antonio Democrat Leo Pacheco’s resignation went into effect.) The House then adjourned until 4 p.m. Monday.
“It’s time to get back to the business of the people of Texas,” said House Speaker Dade Phelan. “I appreciate every one of you. I’m looking forward to working with you over the coming week or two.”
Several of the lawmakers who were marked as “yes” votes were not in the building Thursday, but had previously been in the chamber earlier this session. Lawmakers often vote for one another and their presence could be checked if a lawmaker called to verify the votes, but none did.
One of the remaining Democrat holdouts, Diego Bernal of San Antonio, criticized House leaders for declaring a quorum when lawmakers voting yes were notably absent.
“The party arguing for ‘election integrity’ just established quorum by voting members present who weren’t on the floor,” he said on Twitter.
Bernal’s disapproval speaks to the tense relations between the two parties after 38 days of a Democratic quorum break. But the breaking of ranks by additional Democrats also indicates the party is split on a way to move forward. Several of the staunchest holdouts remain in Washington, while others returned to Texas but refused to return to the Capitol.
More than 50 House Democrats initially left the statehouse in July to block the passage of the GOP elections bill.
Democrats first orchestrated a plan in May to kill the voting legislation when they walked out of the House chamber in the final hours of the regular legislative session, preventing final passage before the clock ran out.
Abbott responded by calling a 30-day special session that began in July. That led to more than 50 Democrats leaving Texas to camp out in Washington, D.C. — away from the reach of Texas law enforcement officials — for several weeks.
The Democrats successfully blocked the bill’s passage during that session, which ended Aug. 6. But Abbott, who made the elections bill and a bail reform bill priorities this year, immediately called another 30-day session to push the bills forward. Abbott has said he won’t stop calling lawmakers back into session until the elections bill is passed.
The GOP elections bill would, among other things, outlaw local voting options intended to expand voting access and bolster access for partisan poll watchers. Democrats and voting rights advocates say it restricts voting rights in the state. Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature, say the proposal is intended to secure “election integrity.”
The second special session began Aug. 7 without a quorum in the House, with most Democrats initially committing to staying away from the state Capitol — even as House leadership deployed law enforcement to conduct civil arrests and return them to the chamber. Those warrants to secure the presence of the lawmakers “by arrest, if necessary” were dissolved Thursday with the meeting of a quorum and the chamber’s adjournment.
Although the House reached the minimum number of lawmakers to conduct official business Thursday, it’s unclear whether the chamber will be able to maintain those numbers for the duration of the second special session, which ends Sept. 5.
The House’s return to regular order was boosted by the return of several Democrats who had opted to stay away during the first special session. Democrats like Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock; Joe Moody, Art Fierro and Mary Gonzáles of El Paso; and Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville had boosted the chamber’s numbers after holding out during the first special session.
On Wednesday night, Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman told The Dallas Morning News he would be returning to the chamber, bringing the House one lawmaker closer to the number it needed to conduct business.
Houston Democrats Armando Walle and Ana Hernandez joined Coleman in his return Thursday evening, with Walle pushing a wheelchair for Coleman, who’d undergone surgery on his leg.
In a joint statement, the three Democrats said they were “proud of the heroic work and commitment” their caucus had shown in breaking quorum.
“We took the fight for voting rights to Washington, D.C. and brought national attention to the partisan push in our state to weaken ballot access. Our efforts were successful and served as the primary catalyst to push Congress to take action on federal voter protection legislation,” the statement read. “Now, we continue the fight on the House Floor.”
The lawmakers pointed to the surge in COVID-19 cases in the state, an overwhelmed hospital system and the return of children to school as efforts that the Legislature needed to work on.
Lawmakers will also have to repair relationships that were fractured during the quorum break.
Republicans frowned upon Democrats who called the elections legislation “Jim Crow 2.0,” saying the implication was they were racists. Democrats said Republicans have rolled over the minority party the entire year and have not negotiated in good faith to bring a resolution to the quorum break or to their concerns with the voting legislation.
In an invocation, Coleman alluded to that friction between the two sides.
“I pray that all of us look inside, about where we want this world to go, this state, this house and look at it from the perspective of trying to find as much common ground as could be had,” he said.
In the Senate, which has already passed all of the items on Abbott’s special session agenda, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated the House’s return.
“The Texas Senate welcomes the House to the 87th Second Called Special Session,” Patrick said on Twitter.