Texas Democrats who defeated a Republican effort to pass a suite of new voting restrictions with a dramatic, late-night walkout from the state House chamber on Sunday have a message for President Joe Biden and his allies in Congress: If we can protect voting rights, you can too.
The surprise move by roughly 60 Democratic lawmakers headed off the expected passage of S.B. 7, a voting measure that would have been one of the most stringent in the nation, denying Republicans a required quorum and forcing them to abruptly adjourn without taking a vote.
The coordinated walkout just after 10:30 p.m. Central time jolted the national debate about voting rights, putting the spotlight on Democratic-backed federal legislation that has been stalled in the Senate all spring, even as state Republicans move to enact new voting rules.
"We knew today, with the eyes of the nation watching action in Austin, that we needed to send a message," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat, said at a news conference held at a historically Black church in Austin early Monday, shortly after he and other lawmakers left the state Capitol. "And that message is very, very clear: Mr. President, we need a national response to federal voting rights."
Republicans control every branch of Texas government and hold firm majorities in both the House and Senate. While Gov. Greg Abbott, R, vowed late Sunday to bring the voting measure back at a special legislative session for redistricting later this year - and threatened to defund the legislature in a tweet on Monday - the walkout represented an unmistakable and shocking defeat for Republican leaders who had assumed the bill would pass ahead of the House's midnight deadline to finish its 2021 business.
It failed to do so because Texas Democrats resolved early in the day to use every tool at their disposal to block a bill they say would have made it harder for Texans to vote - particularly Black and Latino voters who embraced early voting methods that would have been banned under the measure.
The move came at a price, forcing Democrats to walk away from pieces of legislation addressing police force and bail form, among others, that some had hoped to pass Sunday.
After taking their stand, the state Democrats said they want allies elsewhere in the country to seize the moment and show the same kind of resolve - particularly in Washington, where Democrats control the presidency and both chambers of Congress yet are struggling to pave the way for two major pieces of voting legislation: the For the People Act, a sprawling overhaul of federal elections, ethics and campaign finance law; and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would reauthorize the seminal 1965 Voting Rights Act by giving the federal government fresh power to police jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in voting administration.
"We did our part to stop SB 7," tweeted Texas Rep. Erin Zwiener, D. "Now we need Congress to do their part."
"State lawmakers are holding the line," tweeted Texas Rep. James Talarico. "Federal lawmakers need to get their s--- together and pass the For The People Act."
In an interview, Martinez Fischer said that national leaders need to rise to the occasion.
"Breaking quorum is about the equivalent of crawling on our knees begging the president and the United States Congress to give us the For the People Act and give us the John Lewis Voting Rights Act," he said.
Much of the pressure to secure voting rights nationally falls primarily on two Democratic senators who have publicly expressed reluctance to eliminate their chamber's filibuster, which requires 60 votes to allow legislation to move forward. In the current 50-50 Senate, that means major legislation cannot advance without support from at least 10 Republicans.
While top Democratic leaders did not react publicly to the blocking of the Texas bill Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., have continued to push for passage of the For the People Act.
"We cannot fail on key things to our democracy, like [the For the People Act], and everything's on the table, and we're going to continue to discuss it as we move forward," Schumer said Friday.
Republicans have said they oppose national voting standards that would usurp the states' role in administering elections.
It would take a simple majority of every Senate Democrat, plus tiebreaker Vice President Harris, to eliminate the filibuster. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have led the opposition to taking that step.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, a co-founder of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, said in an interview Monday that Congress must find a way to pass federal voting protections in part because Black voters are the Democrats' most reliable constituency - and are under the gravest threat from GOP-proposed restrictions around the country.
"If we don't pass these bills, then shame on us," Veasey said. "And be prepared to see even more of these bills continue to make their way through the states."
Veasey said Republicans have shamelessly broken procedural rules when it suited them, such as when then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked a Supreme Court nominee in President Barack Obama's final months in office - then reversed himself last fall when the appointment fell to President Donald Trump. The alternative to no action, Veasey said, is "keeping our fingers crossed" that an increasingly conservative Supreme Court will strike down some of the new voting restrictions, which he said is not a safe bet.
Biden, for his part, has repeatedly pushed for the passage of the For the People Act. The legislation would establish national standards for election administration, reversing many of the restrictions pursued by Republican-controlled legislatures in the wake of the 2020 election under pressure from Trump, who has claimed repeatedly and without evidence that his defeat was tainted by widespread fraud.
Biden has also advocated for the restoration of provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down eight years ago.
The president did not directly address the Texas drama during a Memorial Day address Monday at Arlington National Cemetery. But he described the right to vote as a foundational aspect of America's system of government that soldiers have given their lives defending.
"Democracy thrives when the infrastructure of democracy is strong," Biden said. That includes ensuring "people have the right to vote freely, fairly and conveniently."
On Saturday, the president called the Texas legislation "wrong and un-American," and called on Congress to pass the two federal voting rights bills.
In addition to pressuring Congress, Texas Democrats said other states where voting restrictions are being considered must find new ways to block them. Already, such measures have passed in Georgia, Florida, Iowa and elsewhere, but more measures are still being debated in Arizona and Michigan, among other states.
It was not lost on Texas Democrats that they blocked S.B. 7 using a procedural rule requiring two-thirds of members to be present to vote on legislation - much as the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate has the power to eliminate the filibuster, a chamber tradition that is not enshrined in any law or judicial decision.
Several Texas lawmakers spoke proudly of causing "good trouble" - a phrase the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who died last year, famously used to describe his willingness to engage in civil disobedience as a leader in the civil rights movement.
State Democrats said they had no other choice but to invoke the last-ditch legislative tradition of breaking quorum, which dates back at least to the age of President Abraham Lincoln.
"We know how to talk for a long time when we need to," state Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democrats, said at the news conference early Monday. "We know how to slow things down. We were determined to take that bill off the cliff because the midnight deadline would pass and no more bills could become law."
But then, Turner said, it became clear Republicans were moving to shut off debate. At 10:35 p.m. local time, he sent a text to his fellow Democrats: "Members, take your key and leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building."
"They were prepared to cut us off and silence us," he told reporters later. "We were not going to let them do that. That's why Democrats used the last tool available to us. We denied them the quorum that they needed to pass that bill and we killed that bill."
Abbott's promise to revisit the voting bill in Texas means the legislature could take up a similar measure to S.B. 7 later in the year, when he plans to call a special session to redraw political districts with new census data.
But several voting-rights advocates said the fact that Abbott, an outspoken Trump supporter and potential 2024 presidential contender, did not call for an immediate special session on voting suggested uncertainty about whether such a move would end well for him given the national attention that Sunday's drama attracted.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R, condemned the Democrats' maneuvering Sunday night and said it blocked action on several pieces of bipartisan legislation that would have banned no-knock warrants, reformed the state's bail rules and increased spending on mental health services.
"Texans shouldn't have to pay the consequences of these members' actions - or in this case, inaction," Phelan said in a statement, adding that the majority of Texans support "making our elections stronger and more secure."
Phelan met privately with House Democrats for nearly an hour Sunday afternoon, and he knew a walkout was possible, several lawmakers with knowledge of the meeting told The Washington Post. He also had the power under Texas House rules to bar members from leaving the chamber - and to send the Department of Public Safety out to arrest lawmakers who were absent without an excuse - and did not do so.
The Texas measure was the latest example of how Republican legislators around the country have pushed for new voting restrictions as Trump has kept up a barrage of false attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election.
GOP lawmakers argued S.B. 7 was necessary to shore up voter trust, even though they struggled to justify the need for stricter rules in the state, where officials said the 2020 election was secure.
Sen. Bryan Hughes, R, one of the sponsors of the measure, tweeted Saturday that it "is a strong bill that gives accessibility & security to Texas elections."
The bill would have imposed a raft of hurdles on casting ballots by mail and enhanced civil and criminal penalties for election administrators, voters and those seeking to assist them.
The measure would have made it illegal for election officials to send out unsolicited mail ballot applications, empowered partisan poll watchers and banned practices such as drop boxes and drive-through voting that were popularized in the heavily Democratic Harris County last year. It would have barred early voting hours on Sunday mornings, potentially hampering get-out-the-vote programs aimed at Black churchgoers.
The final version included numerous provisions inserted at the last minute, including language making it easier to overturn an election, no longer requiring evidence that fraud actually altered an outcome but only that enough ballots were illegally cast that could have made a difference. The legislation also would have changed the legal standard for overturning an election from "reasonable doubt" to "preponderance of the evidence" - a much lower evidentiary bar.
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The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.