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Texas House orders arrest of missing Democrats as weekslong stalemate over a voting restrictions bill continues

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Texas House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to authorize law enforcement to track down Democrats absent from the chamber and bring them back to the state Capitol, “under warrant of arrest, if necessary.”

The 80-12 vote came hours after the Texas Supreme Court ordered that those missing Democrats, many of whom left the state last month to block a GOP voting bill, could soon be detained by state authorities. The order by the all-GOP court came at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, fellow Republicans who had asked the court Monday to overturn a ruling from a state district judge that blocked those leaders from ordering the arrest of the quorum-breaking Democrats.

Since the Legislature gaveled in Saturday for its second special session ordered by Abbott, the House has been unable to make a quorum as dozens of Democrats have remained absent from the chamber.

When the House was unable to meet its 100-member threshold to conduct business Monday, members adopted a procedural move known as a “call of the House” in an effort to secure a quorum. That move locks doors to the chamber and prevents members on the floor from leaving unless they have permission in writing from the speaker.

Tuesday’s vote marks the second time in recent weeks that the chamber has voted to send law enforcement after Democrats still missing from the House.

During the first special session in July, and after more than 50 House Democrats flew to Washington, D.C., members present authorized state authorities to track down their colleagues — but the move carried little weight since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction outside the state.

By the time that first 30-day stretch ended last week, Phelan had signed only one civil arrest warrant, for Rep. Philip Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat. But that move came too late since Cortez, who had briefly returned to Austin, had already gone back to the nation’s capital.

This latest authorization could yield different results as multiple Democrats in recent days have trickled back either to the Capitol in Austin or to their districts across the state. It was immediately unclear Tuesday afternoon whether Phelan intended to sign similar warrants for Democrats such as Reps. Celia Israel of Austin and Jon Rosenthal of Houston, both of whom said earlier in the day they were back in Texas.

Intraparty pressure has been mounting on House Democrats since the second special session started. After at least four of them returned to the floor Monday, bringing the chamber within five members of a quorum, some of their Democratic colleagues who were still in Washington, D.C., unleashed on them. Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos of Richardson tweeted at the returning Democrats that they “all threw us under the bus today.”

Pressure ramped up Tuesday morning, when a coalition of Democratic-aligned groups released a statement urging House Democrats to hold firm and continue breaking quorum. The 21 groups included ​​Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the state’s Sierra Club chapter, the Texas Organizing Project, Progress Texas, the Communications Workers of America and several groups that advocate for Latino Texans.

“To every pro-democracy Texas lawmaker: the only way to preserve our right to vote and the best way to fight is to stay off the House floor,” the coalition’s statement said.

The group also released a four-page memo arguing that far more was at stake in the second special session than just the elections bill, citing a “host of radical conservative priorities” throughout the agenda. The memo was particularly emphatic about a new proposal for the second special session — dropping the quorum threshold to a simple majority — calling it an “ominous allusion to reducing or eliminating minority rights in the Legislature, breaking centuries of Texas bipartisanship.”

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood and Progress Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, Aug. 10, 2021: An earlier version of this story misstated in one instance when the Texas House took a vote to order the arrests of absent members. The vote occurred Tuesday, not Monday.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/08/10/texas-house-arrest-warrants-democrats-quorum/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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