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Texas House speaker signs arrest warrants for absent Democratic lawmakers

Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson speaks at a microphone.
Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, dean of the Texas House of Representatives, speaks at the U.S. Capitol on Friday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The speaker of the Texas House of Representatives signed civil arrest warrants for 52 absent Democrats late Tuesday, setting in motion the potential roundup of lawmakers who have avoided the Texas Capitol in order to stymie a vote on a GOP elections bill that they say would harm minorities.

The House voted 80 to 12 Tuesday to force the protesting lawmakers to return, just hours after the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for the House to order them back to the chamber to secure a quorum.

The warrants will be delivered to the House sergeant-at-arms Wednesday morning, according to Enrique Marquez, a spokesman for Speaker Dade Phelan.

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The move will likely further inflame partisan tension in the Texas House.

Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that it was “fully within our rights as legislators to break quorum to protect our constituents.”

“Texas House Democrats are committed to fighting with everything we have against Republicans’ attacks on our freedom to vote,” he said in a statement.

The Texas Senate has pushed the state one step closer to becoming the largest in the nation where the GOP is making voting harder following the 2020 elections.

One Republican voted against authorizing arrest warrants: state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, who has been openly critical of the elections bill that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has demanded.

“Civil discourse took a nasty turn today,” Larson tweeted of the arrest warrants.

Fugitive Democrats remain defiant, and an untold number are outside the reach of the House sergeant-at-arms and state troopers.

“I just question whether DPS or anyone can break down my door to come and put me in shackles and drag me there,” state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, an Austin Democrat, told the Dallas Morning News. “I feel certain that I can stay in my home, and stay off the House floor.”

Efforts by Texas Republicans to pass voting restrictions tests the enduring relationship between the party and big business in the state.

At least two dozen House Democrats have stayed in Washington, where 57 of them camped out for all or most of a month to run out the clock on Abbott’s first special session.

“We broke quorum because anti-voter bills are nefarious attempts to disenfranchise Texans & these authoritarian motions by Republicans just cement that we are on the right side of history,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, tweeted. “We must hold the line against these desperate attempts to destroy our democracy.”

Abbott called the Legislature into special session last month to reconsider a measure that House Democrats had blocked with an eleventh-hour walkout in May, at the end of the regular biennial session.

Democrats used the same tactic to stymie action in the special session and claimed victory when that session expired.

But Republicans are determined to wear them down, and Abbott immediately ordered a second special session that began Saturday.

Nineteen of the Democrats who broke quorum last month sought protection in a Travis County court. On Monday, District Judge Brad Urrutia signed an order to prevent arrests for 14 days.

Early Tuesday, Abbott and Phelan asked the Texas Supreme Court to overturn that order, and the justices quickly agreed.

It wouldn’t take many arrests for the House to be back in business. A quorum requires two-thirds of the 150 members on site. Since Monday, 96 House members have checked in as present — just four shy.

During their self-imposed exile in Washington, the Texas Democrats have lobbied the White House and potential swing votes in the U.S. Senate for federal voting rights bills that would supersede anything Republicans can get through the Texas Legislature.

Gov. Greg Abbott directs agencies to find additional medical staff and he requests that hospitals postpone elective procedures as the Delta variant overwhelms hospitals statewide. But his ban on mask mandates remains in place.

Texas Republicans insist that their proposals are meant solely to boost election integrity and avert cheating.

Urrutia’s order prevented House members from being subject to a “call of the House.” GOP leaders claimed they could invoke such a call to order the House sergeant-at-arms to haul wayward lawmakers back to the Capitol from anywhere in Texas.

Under House rules, voting on legislation requires a quorum. But votes to compel attendance of absent members, or to adjourn, do not.

“They just need to put them all in handcuffs, drag them in, throw them in the middle of chambers, lock the doors and unhandcuff ’em. ... A couple of them would go bug-eyed crazy,” state Rep. Cecil Bell, a Republican, said in an interview with the web show “The Undercurrent.”

But the optics of hauling in the lawmakers and locking them on the House floor would be risky for GOP leaders. Democratic Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, for example, is recovering from the amputation of a foot.


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