Austin at Large: One Step Forward, Two Steps ...
The Texas Democrats walk back their walkout amid hard feelings, flashes of hope
This is the way a walkout ends, not with a bang nor a whimper, but the faint ding-ding of the voting bell and the murmuring conversations on the floor of the Texas House. At 4pm or so last Thursday, for the first time in six weeks, a quorum was deemed present (maybe not really, but that's moot now; as I write this, 113 members are on the House floor). How did that happen? What happens now? And was the 38-day Runaway Scrape of the Texas House Democrats worth it?
We've heard from members, activists, and analysts on both sides over the last week, during which the answers to those questions have come into focus and also evolved with each passing day. This current second special session of the 87th Texas Legislature will end on Labor Day, Sept. 6; at press time, the House has nothing on its official calendar beyond today, Thursday, Aug. 26.
On that calendar for today is the "election integrity" bill now known as Senate Bill 1, whose final incarnation in the regular session was so obscene as to prompt the largely spontaneous eleventh-hour walkout by the House Dems that scuttled much last-minute business before sine die on Memorial Day. The caucus then decamped to D.C. to not only thwart the first special session but turn up the heat on Congress to pass voting rights legislation, offering themselves up as tribute. If such measures could overcome resistance from all the Rs and you-know-who among the Ds in the U.S. Senate, it could supersede whatever the Lege passed to make an increasingly paranoid Gov. Greg Abbott happy, as well as similar bills in states that MAGAs actually lost in 2020.
That didn't happen before the August recess, which coincided with another special session here in which Gov. Loveless added even more rancid red meat to the call to performatively shove down the House Dems' throats amid howls for revenge from the rightward frontiers of the Lege. While the Texas Senate has dutifully passed whatever Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have put in front of it, and the return of a quorum allowed House Speaker Dade Phelan to hurriedly assign those bills to their relevant committees for slipshod "hearings," the culture-war rampage has not yet trampled the House Democrats. Today's calendar includes, in addition to SB 1, some minor measures by property tax-obsessed Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, that would ideally be adopted before November's constitutional amendment election, and the all-but-inevitable legislation to delay the 2022 primaries. It was suggested to me earlier this week that the House might just decide that's enough for now, and gavel out.
The Stayaway Caucus
That seems unlikely, as Republicans excitedly rush forward with other slabs cut from the decaying carcass of their party platform, like $1.8 billion for Abbott's border security cosplay that will likely get shut down by the courts or the feds, but which plays well in counties where that money could be spent, whose Latinx Dem legislators are worried about post-Trump shifts in party alignment. Plus there are more abortion restrictions and ways to scare trans youth and to chill honest talk about racial equity, because that stuff never gets old.
Interviewed for a piece published Tuesday by The Texas Tribune, Phelan continued as he has throughout this whole business to keep his cards pretty close to the vest, but he didn't expressly commit to passing all of Abbott's requested items on the call. He did say that he's tried to take a patient stance that wouldn't cause "unrepairable harm" to the House, unlike, say, arresting and detaining Democratic members, which many in his caucus, let alone the larger Texas GOP, seem to think is not only just fine and well-deserved but bound to work out in their favor at the ballot box.
Though the Stayaway Caucus among the Dems is not at present large enough to break quorum, that could change over the next two weeks if Phelan lets the House GOP overplay its hand. "I am just not going to participate in my own demise," Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, told us earlier this week. "We had the ability to hold the line; obviously, we were all in this together."
On Thursday, as Houston Dems led by Rep. Garnet Coleman returned to the floor, a majority of the House Democratic Caucus reiterated its preference to stay out as long as needed. Some of those members have returned to the floor, they say, to make sure their voices are heard on key issues and in key votes, and maybe to keep whatever does get through this session a little less bad than it was, and also to make sure there's a robust legislative record of opposition when these things get taken to court. All of that somewhat depends on an opposite number of Rs who are willing to let them participate and live up to the fading bipartisan traditions of the House. "There may be moderate voices, but they're not speaking up," said Rodriguez. "I get along with many of my Republican colleagues personally, but their greatest sin is pride."
On Tuesday back in D.C., the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which – again, if the Senate agrees – restores the VRA "pre-clearance" provisions struck down in 2013 that would allow the Biden administration to deep-six SB 1 as well as slow the redistricting train when it starts gaining steam in September.
On Wednesday, Rodriguez's colleague Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, tweeted, "Someone asked me today, 'Was it all worth it?' We took a moral stance. We tried to meet the moment. We inspired a nation. Yeah, it was worth it. Those on the wrong side of history just didn't know they were in a moment in history. We always knew and I'm proud of that."