lawmakers just took an unprecedented step to prevent a voter suppression
bill from becoming law for the second time
this year: they walked out.
In May, just hours before the Texas Legislature
was set to adjourn for a year and a half, House Democrats
walked out of the chamber and denied Republicans
a quorum, which meant they didn't have enough people present to conduct business
. When the clock struck midnight, the voter suppression bill died, and Democrats claimed victory.
However, in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican governor
, Democrats can only do so much to keep a bill from becoming law.
So, when Gov. Greg Abbott
called lawmakers back into a 30-day special session this week, specifically to pass legislation making it more difficult for people of color to vote, House Democrats weighed their options and left again, this time secretly boarding two chartered planes on Monday night and flying
Abbott is enraged and has already threatened to have them arrested and returned to work
, but he can't do anything while they're out of state. Democrats, on the other hand, know they can't stay away forever, so they're pleading with Democratic U.S. senators to pass federal voting rights legislation that will trump
whatever voter suppression bill is passed.
Texas lawmakers are urging the Senate
to pass the For the People Act
, a sweeping package of voting rights and ethics
reforms that would add new federal mandates for state voting rules, such as requiring no-excuse absentee voting and in-person early voting
. They are also urging the passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act
, which would restore a key piece of the Voting Rights Act.
However, the For the People Act does not have the support of the entire Senate Democratic caucus; Joe Manchin
(W.Va.) opposes it, and Republicans have the ability to filibuster
both bills; it is unclear how the Texas House Democrats in town will get around this.
This is not a long-term strategy to kill the bill; rather, we are buying time until Congress
passes voting rights legislation.
James Talarico (D-Round Rock
) of Texas is a state representative.
On Tuesday, Stardia spoke with one of them, state Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock, about how he and 50 of his colleagues came up with the plan to leave the state secretly, how long they're willing to stay in Washington to lobby senators for federal voting rights legislation, and what their endgame is back in Texas.
For brevity, this interview
has been lightly edited.
Stardia: Can you tell me how this secret trip to Washington came about?
Talarico: I believe I speak for the entire caucus when I say that this was not the first option. Many of us have children
, elderly parents, or sick loved ones. We have day jobs
that we risk by doing this. We risk our own seats by doing this.
We came to the special session, not to negotiate voting rights, but to make the bill less toxic. Republicans rejected every one of our amendments to the bill and crammed it through a hearing at the last minute, so we felt it was time to go nuclear and break a quorum.
Although this is a major inconvenience for some of us and a major sacrifice for others, it pales in comparison to the sacrifices made by brave Americans throughout history
to protect the sacred right to vote, and we felt obligated to honor that legacy by doing everything we could to prevent this bill from becoming law.
HP: What is the endgame here? You know the governor can call you back into special sessions until this bill is passed.
Talarico: This is not a long-term strategy to kill this bill. What we are doing is buying time for Congress to pass voting rights legislation. They have what we don't have in Texas, which is majorities in both chambers. We are living on borrowed time.
We hope that by demonstrating the extraordinary measures that we are willing to take, it will inspire others to act with the same urgency.
HP: The For the People Act, which you are urging the Senate to pass, cannot pass unless Democrats abolish the filibuster, which Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema
have said they will not do. Will you be meeting with those senators while you are here?
Talarico: Yes, we're meeting with Sen. Manchin. I saw on CNN
that he's willing to meet with us. We'll also meet with Sen. Gillibrand and Sen. Schumer later. I haven't heard anything about Sen. Sinema, but we'd obviously love to meet with her.
The difficult part was that this had to be kept a secret until yesterday; there wasn't much we could do ahead of time. I was told to pack my bags and leave the state by Aug. 7. We have members who have family
members who are dying and can't be by their bedsides. One member was supposed to get married in the next few weeks.
HP: Which legislators are addressing these issues?
Talarico: Rep. Celia Israel
just canceled her wedding
, and Rep. Harold Dutton is on his way here after abandoning his [ailing] sister.
All of the commentary about us taking a vacation is hilarious because none of us wanted to spend these four weeks in this manner.
HP: Are you willing to leave the state again if this bill is brought up again in a subsequent special session after this one concludes?
Talarico: I'm not sure if we'll leave again; this quorum break is supposed to last until August 7. We're only here for a few days at a time.
Our main focus is Congress; it is the only play we have here; why keep leaving the state if we're just going to be called back into session? The idea is to put maximum pressure on Congress to act.
HP: So, what happens if you return?
Talarico: I believe there is a warrant
for our arrest, and we're hearing that they may be searching people's homes.
HP: Why are they searching legislators' homes?
Talarico: I suppose they're looking for us? It could just be a harassment tactic; it'll be interesting to see if that happens.