AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Democrats still refused to return to the state Capitol on Saturday as Gov. Greg Abbott began a third attempt at passing new election laws, prolonging a monthslong standoff that ramped up in July when some Democratic state lawmakers fled the state and hunkered down in Washington.
“A quorum is not present,” Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said Saturday afternoon. Just minutes later, he adjourned the chamber until Monday.
More than 50 Democrats last month bolted to the nation's capital, but the precise whereabouts of each of them is unclear. In a joint statement Saturday, Democrats said 26 of them would remain “part of an active presence in Washington maintained for as long as Congress is working."
But there were also signs the stalemate may be thawing. Two of the Democrats who decamped last month returned to Austin on Saturday, and one of them said enough of his colleagues may also begin trickling back to secure a quorum next week. And, notably, Republicans did not invoke a procedural move that would give Phelan the authority to sign arrest warrants for missing lawmakers, as they did when the Democrats left town.
Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III said those who might return were feeling the pull of personal and professional demands.
“I was encouraged that the baton would be carried by my Washington colleagues at the federal level, that there would be sweeping reform nationwide,” Lucio III said.
Republican state. Rep. Jim Murphy, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, also believed that more Democrats would come back in the coming days.
“People are talking to their friends, and we think we’re going to see quite a few more," he said.
It was not just Democrats who were absent Saturday: Six Republicans were also out, including one who recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Heading into the weekend, Democratic leaders had not committed to sitting out the entire 30-day session, leaving open the possibility that enough could return at some point to end the standoff. Republicans want to advance an overhaul of elections in Texas under legislation that largely remains the same despite the months of walkouts and protests by Democratic lawmakers.
Texas would ban 24-hour polling locations and drive-thru voting and give partisan poll watchers more access under the bill that Republicans were on the brink of passing in May. But that effort was foiled by Democrats abruptly leaving the Capitol in a late-night walkout.
Democrats made a bigger gambit — by decamping to Washington on chartered jets — to run out the clock on the GOP's second try. Democrats had hoped to exert pressure on President Joe Biden and Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation, but a Senate Republican filibuster continues to block such a measure.
Democrat Jasmine Crockett, one of the state representatives remaining in Washington, said she would be disappointed if enough of her colleagues returned to give Republicans a quorum next week. She said their group is not “naive" and knows they don't have the votes to permanently hold off passage of a bill in Texas, but are still hoping for movement in Congress.
“I’m not giving up on anything. I’m not going home until the fat lady sings," Crockett said.
Biden never met with the Texas Democrats in Washington. The group was quickly forced to change some plans after several of their members tested positive for Covid-19. Reports that two Democrats snuck away to Europe also led to bad headlines and invited mockery from Republicans back home.
There has been a recent sharp surge in Covid-19 infections in Texas, where the number of people hospitalized with the virus stands at more than 8,500 patients, the highest number since February. But Abbott is adamant that Texas will not bring back pandemic restrictions or mask mandates and has prohibited schools from requiring face coverings. Many of the state's 5 million students are scheduled to return to classrooms this month.