Thirty days after Democrats left Texas to stop new voting restrictions, cracks in the standoff widened Tuesday as more begin returning home from Washington, D.C., and a court blocked efforts to shield holdouts from arrest.
It has put the long-running protest over a GOP elections overhaul on unsteady ground a month after more than 50 Democrats bolted to Washington, D.C., in a dramatic show of unity to make Texas the front lines of a new national battle over voting rights.
Divisions among some Democrats over how — and when — to retreat have spilled in the open as the GOP presses forward with a third attempt to pass an elections overhaul. With new court losses and attention turning toward Texas' surging COVID-19 caseloads, pressure is again mounting on Democrats who lack the numbers to permanently stop a bill from passing.
As of Tuesday, Republicans needed just five more lawmakers present in state House of Representatives to end the stalemate.
“We had many heated debates in Washington as we debated our own next steps,” said state Rep. James Talarico, one of a handful of Democrats who returned to the Texas Capitol this week. “I’m going to keep those arguments in private. But I know emotions are rightfully running high everywhere, and it’s been a difficult month.”
Texas is among several states where Republicans have rushed to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The current bill is similar to the ones Democrats blocked last month by going to Washington. The raft of tweaks and changes to the state's election code would make it harder — and even, sometimes, legally riskier — to cast a ballot in Texas, which already has some of the most restrictive election laws in the nation.
It was unclear Tuesday how many Democrats remained in Washington. The ranks of the group had dwindled to less than half, and some of who stayed behind have publicly fumed at a handful of colleagues who have returned to the Legislature. Progressive allies are also pressuring wavering Democrats to hold the line and stay away from the Capitol, even if they come back to Texas.
"You threw us under the bus today! Why?” Dallas Democratic state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos said in a tweet that included a picture of Talarico and other Democrats on the floor of the Texas House.
Democrats' setbacks include a Texas Supreme Court decision Tuesday that could allow lawmakers to be arrested or detained for refusing to show up. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened Democrats with arrest, but House Republicans have yet to do so for the current special session.
“The Supreme Court of Texas swiftly rejected this dangerous attempt by Texas Democrats to undermine our Constitution and avoid doing the job they were elected to do," Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said.
State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, who returned to Texas this week, said she and fellow Democrats have consistently agreed in daily check-ins that they “are committed to quorum break at this time.” She said those who returned did so for personal, professional and political reasons, including helping their districts through COVID-19 surges.
Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel was also back in Austin and said “there is no way” she will return to the Texas House. On Tuesday, she delivered doughnuts to teachers and met with constituents.
“Every day that we can not be on the floor doing business according to Gov. Abbott’s agenda is a good day,” Israel said.
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.