‘We’re buying some time’: Texas Democrats heap pressure on Biden, Congress for voting rights action

Representative Chris Turner (D-TX) joins other Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives, who are boycotting a special session of the legislature in an effort to block Republican-backed voting restrictions, as they speak in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., July 13, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 

By ERIC BRADNER

CNN

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Texas House Democrats said Tuesday they can only hold off Republicans’ push for restrictive new voting laws for weeks, as they urged President Joe Biden and Democratic members of Congress to look for new ways to implement federal protections – including backing South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn’s call for a filibuster carve-out for voting rights legislation.

The day after they left Texas, flying from Austin to Washington to break the state House’s quorum and block a bill that would make it harder for many Texans to vote, House Democratic leader Chris Turner said his party’s members will lobby national Democratic leaders to help stop Gov. Greg Abbott and majority Republicans in the state legislature.

 

LIVE UPDATES: The latest on voting rights in the U.S. is available at https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/biden-speech-voting-rights-07-13-21/index.html.

 

“We can’t hold this tide back forever,” Turner told reporters outside the Capitol. “We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use this time wisely.”

Democrats’ decision to bolt from the state was also symbolic: Texas Democrats want to make clear they are doing everything possible to slow the wave of restrictive new voting laws inspired by former President Donald Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud and already enacted this year by some Republican-led states, including Florida and Georgia.

“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,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

The Texas Democratic lawmakers said they will meet with members of Congress while they are in Washington to urge them to pass voting rights legislation, including the For the People Act – a sweeping measure that has stalled in the Senate, where Democrats only have 50 of the 60 votes they’d need to break a filibuster and moderate Democrats such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin have opposed changing the rules to eliminate the filibuster.

Manchin said Tuesday he “absolutely” wants to meet with the Democratic Texas state lawmakers while they’re at the Capitol, and later in the day said that the meeting will likely happen Thursday.

Asked if he’ll be receptive to the lawmakers if they make the case to him to reconsider keeping the legislative filibuster at a 60-vote threshold, he said, “I’m respectful for everyone’s desires and requests, and I’m sure they’ll be respectful of my answers.”

Biden delivered a speech on voting rights Tuesday in Philadelphia, which Texas Democrats said they would be watching.

“The big lie is just that: A big lie,” Biden said in his speech.

He compared Republicans’ push for restrictive voting laws to Jim Crow laws and KKK voter suppression tactics, accusing the GOP of “raw and sustained election subversion” and warning that the country faces the most significant test of its democracy since the Civil War.

“There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote and fair and free elections. An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are,” the president said.

However, Biden did not broach the topic of the filibuster, which Republicans have used to prevent voting rights legislation from advancing to a vote in the Senate.

The Texas Democrats also urged national Democrats to adopt Clyburn’s idea of a filibuster carve-out for constitutional issues, which would open the door for Democrats to pass voting rights legislation while preserving the 60-vote threshold for other bills.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would meet with Texas state lawmakers who had traveled to Washington, calling them “brave people” who will ultimately be on the right side of history.

“And when you hear the arguments from some of our Senate Republicans, they’re not that different than the arguments made by segregationist senators from the South 50 years ago, in terms of voting rights and states’ rights to block voting rights, etc.,” Schumer said.

Asked by CNN if he would meet with Texas Democrats, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said he hasn’t “heard a word” from the group.

“I haven’t heard anything from them,” Cruz said. “Frankly, they should be back in Texas doing their job, not engaged in a political stunt here in Washington.”

In Texas, minority House Democrats walked out of the final hours of this year’s legislative session, blocking Republicans from approving Senate Bill 7 – the controversial measure that would have made casting mail-in ballots harder; banned drive-thru voting centers and 24-hour voting – tactics Harris County, the home of Houston, used in the 2020 election; empowered poll watchers, made it easier for courts to overturn election results; effectively outlawed Black churches’ “souls to the polls” get out the vote push and more.

Abbott, the Republican governor who is seeking a third term in 2022, called a 30-day special legislative session, saying that “election integrity” would be one of his priorities. Majority Republicans in the House and Senate in recent days unveiled bills that closely mirrored SB 7.

State House and Senate committees advanced those bills after hearing opposition in hours-long hearings over the weekend.

House Democrats’ only available move to stop the bills’ progress was to leave the Capitol building – preventing the state House from having the two-thirds quorum necessary to conduct business – and flee the state entirely, blocking Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan from having those Democrats arrested and returned to the House chamber.

Back in Austin, the Texas state Senate voted along party lines Tuesday evening to give final Senate approval to its election overhaul bill that would add new voting restrictions. The bill now heads to the state House, though no action can be taken due to the Democrats’ breaking quorum by leaving Texas.

“It’s a little like Groundhogs Day here,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick quipped after the vote. “Maybe in six more weeks we’ll have enough people in the House to pass it on final passage.”

Earlier Tuesday, the Texas House – with almost entirely Republican members – approved a motion to direct the sergeant-at-arms to send for all unexcused absent members in an effort secure a quorum, “under warrant of arrest, if necessary.”

Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction in Washington, D.C., so it is unlikely the order will have much effect while the Texas House Democrats remain out of state.

However, Abbott told KVUE on Monday that once the state House Democrats return to Texas, “they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done.”

An NAACP spokesperson said the organization would pay bail for any Democrat arrested as a result of the Texas legislative boycott.

“War has been declared on democracy, and we will support anyone who stands up to defend it,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “We are fully invested in good trouble.”

The Texas Democrats admitted Tuesday it was merely a stalling tactic. After the current special session ends on Aug. 7, Turner said expects Abbott to call another special session.

“We are living right now on borrowed time in Texas, and we can’t stay here indefinitely to run out the clock to stop Republican anti-voter bills,” Rep. Rhetta Bowers said. “That’s why we need Congress to act now and pass the For the People Act. Texas Democrats will use everything in our power to fight back, but we need Congress to act now.”

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