Renegade Democrats in state line stand-off

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They are holed up just across the state line, out of reach of a posse of Texas Rangers. And for the time being at least, they ain't coming out.

The miscreants, however, are not gunmen or gangsters – just a wild bunch of Democratic legislators practising politics, Texas style.

For the third day in a row, more than 50 Democratic members of the Texas state legislature hunkered down in a Holiday Inn at Ardmore, 30 miles into Oklahoma, only emerging to take refreshment at the local Denny's fast-food restaurant.

In doing so they have halted all legislative business in the Austin state house by depriving it of a quorum. They may also have dealt a mortal blow to a Republican scheme to redraw their state's congressional districts which could permanently alter the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

"Redistricting" is a messy process that takes place every decade to accommodate changes thrown up by the census. It is an umbrella for score-settling as well a means of reflecting demographic shifts. This one, however, is being portrayed by Democrats as a power grab orchestrated by Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives in Washington. Currently, the Texas House delegation in Washington consists of 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Not entirely unreasonably, Mr Delay says this does not reflect reality in Texas, which votes solidly Republican in presidential elections, and has a Republican governor, two Republican senators and an 88-62 Republican majority in the 150-seat state legislature.

The new plan – in normal times certain of approval – would increase likely Republican seats to at least 19, and perhaps 22. A net gain of seven would double the existing Republican majority in the House.

If the renegade Democrats can evade capture until today, the legislative deadline will have passed, making passage of the bill all but impossible in the current session.

Texas Republicans are incensed. The Democrats "are silencing debate on important issues and undermining our system of democracy," the Governor Rick Perry declared.

But the authority of the Texas Rangers stops at the state line, and Oklahoma won't turn them in. "We support them," said Harvey Burkhart, the sheriff of Ardmore's Carter County. "We're not going to put them in jail."

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