It is a decision that partly depends on if the runaway group of more than 50 Democratic state legislators still in Washington can claim victories up through now — and the right answer is not as easy as they would like as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott begins a third attempt to overhaul Texas' voting laws in another special session starting Saturday.
The cross-country protest no doubt won national attention and piled scrutiny on the GOP's push to rewrite voting laws following the 2020 election. Setting up camp in a Washington hotel, Texas Democrats spent nearly a month meeting with congressional leaders, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and torpedoed new voting laws back home for a second time.
But an outbreak of COVID-19 in their ranks shortly after their dramatic arrival in Washington slowed their momentum. President Joe Biden never met with them, and reports that some Democrats snuck away to vacation in Europe drew bad headlines and mockery from Republicans back home.
In the end, the Democrats are in much the same position they were in a month ago: without the votes to permanently block the bill in the Texas Capitol, and without the votes to pass federal legislation in Congress.
“This is not the end,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, who was among the Democrats who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Washington. “For us, it could be a new awakening to activism when it comes to voting rights.”
Whether or not Democrats this weekend return to Texas, they have achieved becoming the face of a national battle over voting rights, set off by former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. But many of the same obstacles to victory remain.
In Texas, Republicans have publicly offered no concessions to significantly alter the voting measures that Democrats have now twice stopped from passing, starting with a late-night walkout in May. And in Washington, which Democrats picked as their destination in order to pressure Biden and Congress on voting rights, the biggest hurdle to new federal legislation hasn't changed: a filibuster by Senate Republicans.
It is a reminder of how breaking quorum — a last-ditch and dramatic ploy to grind the business of lawmaking to a halt — rarely succeeds in the end. If anything, Republicans have only hardened their resolve, with some now itching to further strip Democrats of what little power they have in the Texas Capitol.
Of the 17 issues Abbott has ordered the GOP-controlled statehouse to take up over the next 30 days, a new one stands out: a measure “relating to legislative quorum" requirements.
“The Texas House remains committed to fulfilling its responsibilities as soon our Democratic colleagues return from Washington or from their vacations abroad,” Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said Friday.
Less than 24 hours before the new session was to begin, Texas Democrats were still in Washington, celebrating their defeat of the first special session. As a caucus, Democrats have not revealed when or whether they will return to Texas. But state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez has said a “vast majority” is committed to not showing up at the start and keep preventing a quorum in the state House of Representatives.
That would raise the prospect of Democrats facing arrest in an effort to compel their attendance in the House chamber, a threat they have mostly shrugged off. They also insist they wouldn't be coming home empty-handed.
Aside from stopping the GOP voting bill for a second time, Democrats say they succeeded in pushing voting rights legislation back near the top of Congress' agenda and turning a national spotlight on the issue. They have also taken credit at least one potential change under the most recent bill that Republican Rep. Pat Fallon of Texas said would be coming: removing some voter ID requirements for mail-in ballots.
They also rallied supporters and voters back home, including more than $700,000 that former congressman Beto O'Rourke, who has not ruled out challenging Abbott in 2022, said he raised through his political action committee.
The holdout was not without its stumbles. Shortly after they arrived, several Democrats tested positive for COVID-19, limiting their in-person meetings. And although Democrats met twice with Vice President Kamala Harris, they never met with Biden. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaski said if the legislative calendar required Democrats to be in Texas, “we would support that.”
Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the organizers of the walkouts, said it was significant to see lawmakers from other states join them in Washington in support.
“Some people have said we have moved the needle when it comes to voting rights, and I believe we have been moving the mountain,” he said.