For Texas House Democrats, defeat on the voting bill was preordained – and they knew it
Texas House Democrats had few cards to play when they left the state in an effort to thwart an elections bill. And when they returned to the Capitol, Republicans dealt them out.
AUSTIN — It’s a safe bet that when the Texas House Democrats fled the state on July 12 to grind business in the chamber to a halt, they already knew what would happen on Aug. 27.
Well, maybe not the exact date, but certainly how events would unfold despite their best efforts to stop them.
To no one’s surprise, the GOP-dominated House Friday advanced the controversial elections bill that Democrats had loudly proclaimed would tamp down turnout in minority communities. That's the reason so many House Democrats bolted to Washington, D.C., six weeks earlier to deny the 150-member chamber the 100 people present required by the Texas Constitution to act on legislation.
And, to no one's surprise, even after enough Democrats returned from their self-imposed exile to allow the House to get back to work, the Republicans shut down virtually every effort the Democrats offered to make the legislation more to their liking.
Sure, many of the 40 or so Democrats inside the chamber made impassioned speeches suggesting that outlawing drive-through voting, cutting back on the hours and locations of early voting and other provisions in Senate Bill 1 would effectively keep people away from the voting booth. They asked pointed questions, highlighted the finer points of the constitutional rights due all Americans, and pretty much all of the other things the losing side does in an emotional legislative debate.
But the outcome was preordained and the Republicans, who chafed at the Democrats' absence that kept the GOP members in Austin for much of the summer for two special sessions called by Gov. Greg Abbott, were not about to stop the train that will surely put their elections bill into the state's law books.
So what exactly did the Democrats who busted quorum, including the more than a dozen who have yet to return to the Capitol, accomplish between mid-July and late August?
Two of the party's House leaders, perhaps a bit ruefully, said that at least they called attention to the larger issue of voting rights. That they did. Their meetings in Washington with Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer were well covered, nationally and back home.
But calling attention is one thing. Changing minds is another. There's a truism in political reporting that goes, if one side is calling a news conference in the middle of a bitter partisan battle it's an admission that the other side has the votes needed to win. Or at least that their side lacks the votes to stave off defeat.
And that's how the back story in the Texas elections bill played out.
State Rep. Rafael Anchía, the Dallas Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and one of the central players in the quorum bust, said after returning to the Capitol that he and his colleagues deserve some of the credit for the Democratic-run U.S. House on Tuesday finally taking up and passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
The measure, named for the iconic civil rights leader and longtime Georgia congressman who died at 80 last year, would restore federal review of any changes in election law made in states that have a history of discrimination, including Texas.
"The vice president made it very, very clear her ask was to buy more time for Congress to act on meaningful federal voting rights legislation," Anchía said. "And we are convinced that the big success of the quorum break was to ... get those bills moving again."
Let's grant Anchía's point. The Texas Democrats' walkout helped fire up the party's national base. And a fired up base is essential for partisan lawmakers to take action on whatever issue is fueling the flame. But the higher mountain to climb was to get the Senate, divided 50-50 with Harris as the tie-breaker, to move on federal voting rights legislation.
That would have meant getting one of the two center-right Senate Democrats – West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema – to agree to bypass the 60-vote filibuster. That hasn't happened, and perhaps never will. So in the end, Texas Republicans got pretty much everything they wanted in the elections bill. It just took a little longer than they had hoped.
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.