For the second time this year, Texas Democratic lawmakers just took an extraordinary step to stop a voter suppression bill from becoming law: They left.
In May, hours before the Texas Legislature was set to adjourn for a year and a half, House Democrats walked out of the chamber and denied a quorum to Republicans, meaning they didn’t have enough people present to conduct business. The clock hit midnight, the voter suppression bill died and Democrats claimed victory.
But in a state with a GOP-controlled legislature and a Republican governor, there’s only so much Democrats can do to stop a bill from becoming a law.
So when Gov. Greg Abbott this week brought lawmakers back into a 30-day special session, specifically to pass legislation that will make it harder for people of color to vote, House Democrats weighed their options and left again. This time, 51 of them secretly boarded two chartered planes on Monday night and flew to Washington, D.C. Their absence means the Texas House can’t pass any bills until they return.
Abbott is furious and already vowing to have them arrested and brought back to work. But he can’t do anything to them while they’re out of state. And Democrats know they can’t stay away forever, so they have a singular goal while they’re in the nation’s capital: They are pleading with Democratic U.S. senators to pass federal voting rights legislation that will trump whatever voter suppression bills are about to become law in their state.
Specifically, the Texas lawmakers are urging the Senate to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping package of voting rights and ethics reforms that would add new federal mandates for state voting rules, including requiring no-excuse absentee voting and in-person early voting. The Texas lawmakers are also urging passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore a key piece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But the For the People Act doesn’t even have the support of the full Senate Democratic caucus ― Joe Manchin (W.Va.) opposes it ― and Republicans can filibuster both bills anyway. It’s not clear how the Texas House Democrats in town can get around that.
This is not a long-term plan to kill this bill. What we are doing is buying time to get Congress to pass voting rights legislation. Texas state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock)
On Tuesday, HuffPost caught up with one of them, state Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock, to talk about how he and 50 of his colleagues came up with the plan to secretly leave the state, how long they’re willing to stay in Washington to lobby senators to pass federal voting rights legislation and what their endgame is back in Texas.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
HuffPost: How did this secret trip to Washington come together?
Talarico: I think I speak for the entire caucus when I say this was certainly not the first choice. Many of us have kids or elderly parents or sick loved ones. We have day jobs that we risk by doing this. We risk our own seats by doing this. This was kind of a last resort.
We showed up to the special session, we came to the negotiating table ― not that we can negotiate voting rights, but to make the bill less toxic. Republicans rejected every one of our amendments to the bill and jammed it through a hearing at the last minute. So we felt it was time to use the nuclear option and break a quorum.
Although this is a major inconvenience for some of us, and a major sacrifice for some of us, it pales in comparison to the sacrifices that brave Americans have made throughout history to protect the sacred right to vote. We felt we had to honor that legacy to do everything we can to stop this bill from passing.
HP: What’s the endgame here? You know the governor can keep calling you back into special sessions until this bill passes.
Talarico: This is not a long-term plan to kill this bill. What we are doing is buying time to get Congress to pass voting rights legislation. They have what we don’t have in Texas, which is majorities in both chambers. We are living on borrowed time. We are buying Congress time.
We hope by demonstrating this, the extraordinary measures we are willing to take, that it motivates them to act with the same urgency.
HP: The bill you are urging the Senate to pass, the For the People Act, can’t pass unless Democrats get rid of the filibuster, which Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema say they won’t do. Are you meeting with those senators while you’re here?
Talarico: Yes. We’re meeting with Sen. Manchin. I saw on CNN that he’s willing to meet with us. We have a meeting with Sen. Gillibrand later and with Sen. Schumer. I haven’t heard about Sen. Sinema. Obviously we’d love to meet with her.
The hard part was that this had to be a secret up until yesterday. It wasn’t like we could do a bunch of advance work. I was told to pack my bag and be out of the state until Aug. 7. We really do have members who have family members who are dying and they can’t be by their bedsides. One member was supposed to get married in the next few weeks.
HP: Which lawmakers are dealing with these issues?
Talarico: Rep. Celia Israel just canceled her wedding. Rep. Harold Dutton is on his way here; he left his [ailing] sister.
All the commentary about us taking a vacation is just hilarious because this is just not how any of us wanted to be spending these four weeks.
HP: Are you prepared to leave the state again if this bill comes back up in another special session after this special session ends?
Talarico: I don’t know if we’ll leave again. I was told this quorum break is until Aug. 7. We’re living a couple of days at a time here.
Our main focus is Congress. Congress is the only play we have here. Why keep leaving the state if we’re just going to be called back into session? The idea is we’re trying to put maximum pressure on Congress to do something.
HP: What happens when you go back?
Talarico: There’s a warrant out for our arrest. I think that’s right. A big concern now is that we’re hearing details like they may be searching people’s homes.
HP: Searching lawmakers’ homes? For what?
Talarico: Searching for us, I suppose? It could just be a harassment tactic. It will be interesting to see if that comes to fruition.