Texas Democrats leave state to block election overhaul bill

Texas Democratic lawmakers left the state Monday to deny Republicans the quorum they need to convene a special legislative session, a dramatic move that is likely to set up weeks of political brinkmanship.

A plane carrying a majority of state House members reportedly left Austin just after 4 p.m. ET on a charter flight bound for Washington, D.C.

Two sources with knowledge had earlier confirmed to The Hill the plan to flee, which was first reported by NBC News.

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The high-stakes gambit will grind legislative action to a halt, just as Republicans had planned to bring up a sweeping measure to overhaul elections procedures, among other controversial measures high on the list of priorities backed by Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottJudge schedules Oct. 1 hearing on DOJ request to halt Texas abortion law 24 Democratic AGs back Biden bid to block Texas abortion law COVID-19 hospitalizations starting to plateau in Dallas area, official says MORE (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). 

“They’re flying out,” said one top Texas Democratic strategist.

Texas Democratic state Rep. James Talarico tweeted a photo of himself and fellow Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson standing in front of what appears to be a charter plane.

"Special session is over," he wrote.

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Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa earlier on Monday issued a statement confirming that the walkout had begun.

“Today, by breaking quorum to block Abbott’s attacks on voters, Texas Democrats are making history," Hinojosa said. "After Abbott dragged lawmakers back to the Capitol for his suppression session, Democrats are fighting back with everything we’ve got. We will not stand by and watch Republicans slash our right to vote, silence the voices of Texans of color, and destroy our democracy — all to preserve their own power. Our lawmakers have refused to be complicit in Republicans’ destructive attacks — and they’re doing what Texans need them to do: hold the line so that not one more anti-voter law can be passed in Texas."

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” state Reps. Chris Turner (D), Rafael Anchia (D), Nicole Collier (D), Garnet Coleman (D) and Dean Senfronia Thompson (D) said in a joint statement. “We are now taking the fight to our nation’s capitol.”

The group of Democratic leaders once again urged Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John LewisJohn LewisHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Budowsky: High stakes drama for Biden, Manchin, Sinema Stacey Abrams backs Senate Democrats' voting rights compromise MORE Voting Rights Act.

Texas rules require two-thirds of lawmakers to answer a quorum call. Those who are absent can be detained by the state Department of Public Safety and returned to the Capitol in Austin.

Legislative committees in the state House and Senate both heard testimony on the elections overhaul measure over the weekend. Committee reports have yet to be filed, meaning the bill is not yet scheduled for consideration before the full House and Senate.

The walkout is a repeat of a tactic state Democrats have used several times before, most recently earlier this year, when legislators absconded before a critical deadline. That walkout came just hours before the legislature adjourned its regular session, effectively killing the elections package.

Monday’s walkout is more akin to a 2003 effort by state Democrats to fight back against a mid-decade redistricting proposal that ultimately helped Texas Republicans pick up several seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Back then, Texas House Democrats fled to Ardmore, Okla., where they holed up in a Holiday Inn. They stayed for four days, forcing Republican lawmakers to delay passage of the bill. When the measure passed the state House, Democratic state senators fled to New Mexico.

This time, Texas lawmakers will likely have to stay away for weeks to run out the clock on the roster of conservative priorities Abbott set out when he called a special session earlier this month. Special sessions last up to 30 days under Texas law.

Along with the elections measure, Abbott asked legislators to pass bills to ban transgender women from competing in women’s sports leagues, ban delivery of abortion-inducing drugs and bar teaching of critical race theory in state classrooms.

Democrats may hope to force Republicans to compromise on the election overhaul bill and the other priorities on the docket, but they have little leverage other than staying away. Even in 2003, the redistricting bill eventually passed a new special session.

Updated at 4:59 p.m.