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Texas Democrats flee state in effort to block GOP-backed voting restrictions

The lawmakers arrived in Washington to advocate for federal voting rights legislation, risking arrest by leaving during the special session.
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In an extraordinary effort to block Republicans from enacting new voting restrictions, Texas Democrats bolted — again.

A large group of Democratic members of the state House of Representatives arrived at Dulles International Airport on Monday evening after fleeing the state in a pair of charter jets. At least 51 members were on the flights, a source familiar with the plans told NBC News. At least seven others were en route, as well.

The unusual move, akin to what Democrats did in 2003, will paralyze the chamber, stopping business until the lawmakers return to town or the session ends.

Speaking to reporters at the airport Monday night, the lawmakers urged Congress to quickly pass federal legislation to protect voting rights and vowed to stay in Washington, D.C., through August to run out the clock on the session, which began Thursday.

The Democrats say the For the People Act, an amended version of which Republicans filibustered in the U.S. Senate last month, is the only way they can permanently fend off election limits Republicans are advancing at the state level.

"Our democracy is on the line," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer told NBC News. "It became very clear to us that this weekend that any attempts to negotiate some Democratic concessions were cut off, making it very clear that Republicans were hellbent on having it their way."

The legislators risk arrest by taking flight. Under the Texas Constitution, the Legislature requires a quorum of two-thirds of lawmakers to be present to conduct state business in either chamber. Absent lawmakers can be legally compelled to return to the Capitol; the source said Democrats expect state Republicans to ask the Department of Public Safety to track them down.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has made tightening election rules a priority, slammed the move as a dereliction of duty.

"Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve," Abbott said in statement. "As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state."

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan vowed in a statement on Monday afternoon to "use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum."

"The special session clock is ticking," Phelan said.

Many of the Democrats who fled have families, medical issues or child care obligations, making the three-week venture more difficult. Still, the members have nonetheless been considering the extraordinary move for weeks. To block the pending legislation, the Democratic lawmakers would have to remain away through the end of the special session, which can last as long as 30 days under the state Constitution.

"We are citizen lawmakers, we don't get professional salaries" said Fischer, stressing the personal toll that the three-week trip would take on some. "We're businesses or we're someone else's employee."

Initially, members considered decamping to West Virginia and Arizona, because Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have opposed abolishing the filibuster to pass the For the People Act. But they feared that the states' Republican governors would aid in returning them to Texas.

"Bottom line, there is nothing special about this special session. It’s based on the big lie — Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election," said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat from Austin.

Image: The Texas State Capitol in Austin.
The Texas State Capitol in Austin.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

Advocates in Texas said the action matched the moment.

"The walkout is a drastic action in direct response to the governor's refusal to listen to his constituents or address the real needs of Texans," Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement.

Carisa Lopez, political director of the civil liberties group Texas Freedom Network, also applauded the move.

"Texas Republicans have proven time and again they care more about winning primaries than solving actual problems for Texans, so I'm really proud of Texas Democrats for taking bold action. We do need federal legislation now, so Texas Democrats are taking on immense risk to try and push that forward and keep this awful voter suppression legislation from becoming law," she said in an interview Monday afternoon.

State House Democrats have already staged one successful walkout to defeat election legislation. Members quietly left the House floor in the final minutes of the regular legislative session that ended in May, breaking quorum and forcing the GOP to adjourn without passing a voting bill. But the victory was always likely to be short-lived, as Republicans control both legislative chambers.

Abbott kept his vow to call a special session, and Republicans didn't waste time. Lawmakers advanced a pair of voting measures — House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1 — on Sunday after marathon committee hearings in both chambers, with the House hearing lasting nearly 24 hours. Members of the public waited hours to testify before both chambers in the middle of the night. Floor votes had been expected as early as this week.

Both bills would add identification requirements for mail voting, ban some early voting options, create criminal penalties for breaking election codes and empower partisan poll watchers.

Although lawmakers did it briefly in May, breaking quorum is rare. In May 2003, more than 50 state House Democrats left the state to try to block a redistricting proposal supported by the Republican majority. After the plan ultimately passed the state House, Democratic state senators then fled, before a defector eventually reinstated the quorum.

The redistricting plan passed the Senate that October. The redistricting bill at the time was known as House Bill 3 — the same legislative name as one of current voting bills.