AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Democrats in the Texas Legislature on Monday bolted for Washington, D.C., and said they were ready to remain there for weeks in a second revolt against a GOP overhaul of election laws, forcing a dramatic new showdown over voting rights in America.
Private planes carrying a large group of Democrats took off from an airport in Austin, skipping town just days before the Texas House of Representatives was expected to give early approval to sweeping new voting restrictions in a special legislative session. Hours after they took off, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told an Austin television station he would keep calling special sessions through next year if necessary, and raised the possibility of Democrats facing arrest upon returning home.
Texas lawmakers landed in the Washington suburb of Sterling, Virginia, Monday evening and were taken by bus from a private terminal to a parking lot near the main terminal of Dulles Airport, where they were expected to address the media.
By leaving, Democrats again deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass bills, barely a month after a walkout thwarted the first push for sweeping new voting restrictions in Texas, including outlawing 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes and empowering partisan poll watchers.
"This is a now-or-never for our democracy. We are holding the line in Texas," said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer. "We've left our jobs, we've left our families, we've left our homes. Because there is nothing more important than voting rights in America."
It was not immediately clear how many of the 67 Democrats in the Texas House left, but party leaders said it will be enough to bring the Legislature to a halt.
The decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure in the nation's capital on President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level. Biden is set to deliver a major address on the issue Tuesday in Philadelphia, after facing growing criticism for taking what some on the left call too passive a role in the fight.
The lawmakers are expected to meet with Democrats across Washington. But a White House official said there are no current plans for a White House visit.
The drastic move lays bare how Democrats are making America's biggest red state their last stand against the GOP's rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.
It marks the first time since 2003 that Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, have crossed state lines to break quorum.
Moments after Democrats jetted off, Abbott issued a statement blasting them for leaving, while Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan promised to use "every available resource" to secure a quorum. He did not elaborate, but some House Republicans signaled they would take action when the chamber reconvenes Tuesday.
When Democrats fled the state two decades ago — in a failed attempt to stop new GOP-drawn voting maps — state troopers were deployed to bring them back.
"Texas Democrats' decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve," Abbott's statement said. "As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state."
He went on to list property tax relief, along with funding for law enforcement, foster care children and retired teachers — making no mention of new election laws.
Over the weekend, Texas Republicans began advancing measures that also bring back provisions to ban drive-thru voting, add new voter ID requirements to absentee ballots and prohibit local elections officials from proactively sending mail-in ballot applications to voters. Abbott also gave lawmakers a lengthy to-do list this summer heavy on hot-button conservative issues, including restrictions over how race is taught in schools and banning transgender athletes from playing in girls' sports.
The decision to flee carries risks, and no guarantee of victory in the long run.
Abbott, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has demanded new election laws in Texas, could keep calling 30-day special sessions until a bill is passed. He also punished Democrats after their May walkout by vetoing paychecks for roughly 2,000 Capitol employees, which will begin taking effect in September unless the Legislature is in session to restore the funding.
Staying away for an extended time could also carry repercussions in next year's midterm elections, although many Texas Democrats are already expecting a difficult cycle in 2022, particularly with Republicans set to begin drawing new voting maps this fall that could cement their majorities.
For weeks, Democrats have signaled they were ready to draw a line. Adding to their anger: A Houston man who gained attention last year after waiting more than six hours to cast a ballot was arrested on illegal voting charges one day before the special session began Thursday. Attorneys for Hervis Rogers say the 62-year-old did not know that his being on parole for a felony burglary conviction meant he wasn't allowed to vote.
Vice President Kamala Harris applauded Texas Democrats for their "courage and commitment" before they boarded the flight. Back in Texas, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signaled that he would still try to pass a voting bill as early as Tuesday in the Senate. It was unclear whether Democrats in that chamber would continue showing up.