A four-month political standoff in the state of Texas may be coming to an end. A Democratic state senator who had been with a group of so-called "renegades" in the neighboring state of New Mexico is now back in Texas where he may participate in a special legislative session on congressional redistricting.
Texas Senator John Whitmire is now back at his home in Houston, vowing to fight Governor Rick Perry's redistricting plan, but saying he will do so in Texas, not by staying with a group of Democratic exiles in New Mexico.
Senator Whitmire's decision to return to his home and family has brightened the outlook for state Republicans, including the governor, who want to change voting district lines in a way that would result in more Republicans being elected to the U.S. Congress.
Democrats currently have a 17-15 majority in the state delegation in Washington, even though Texas has become a strong Republican state. The gain of a few seats by Republicans in Congress could make a difference in which party controls the body after next year's election.
Governor Perry has already called two special sessions of the legislature trying to accomplish his redistricting goal, but was stopped both times when Democratic lawmakers fled to nearby states to prevent a quorum from being reached in the legislature.
Some Democrats are criticizing Senator Whitmire for returning, since his presence would give Governor Perry the number of senators needed to hold a session. But Senator Whitmire says the Democratic strategy of blocking the redistricting plan by keeping legislators outside the state is flawed.
"It is my opinion that Rick Perry is committed to calling special, after special, after special and, at some point in time, remaining in New Mexico is counterproductive," he said. "My constituents that I visited with last weekend thought that we should not have redistricting, but if someone is going to propose it, we need to take the fight to the Senate floor."
The 10 Democratic colleagues Senator Whitmire left behind in Albuquerque, New Mexico say he will have to answer to his constituents and his own conscience for abandoning them. The "renegade Democrats," as they have been called, say they may now continue the fight against redistricting in other ways.
The chair of the State Democratic Caucus and leader of the New Mexico exiles, Senator Leticia Van de Putte, says she and her colleagues miss Texas, but that they miss the spirit of civility that once existed in the state capital of Austin even more.
"We miss the Texas that used to have a bipartisan legislature led by those who understood that members should leave their partisan hats at the door," said Ms. Van de Putte. "We miss the Texas that used to have the sort of bipartisan legislative leadership who understood the empowerment of consensus instead of the brute force of oppression."
Republican leaders scoff at such rhetoric, noting that Democrats controlled the legislature and the district lines for 130 years, until Republicans won enough seats to take control in last November's election.
Texas was once a strong Democratic stronghold producing such national figures as President Lyndon Johnson. But for the past few decades the Republican party has been gaining ground. In November's election the Republicans won every major contest despite unprecedented levels of spending by Democrats on some races and a rise in the generally pro-Democrat Hispanic population.
Governor Perry has indicated that he will likely call a third special session of the legislature to address the redistricting proposal. State authorities can arrest any legislator within the state boundaries who refuses to attend the session. A group of 50 state Democratic legislators fled to the neighboring state of Oklahoma in May to prevent a quorum at the first special session and the dispute has continued since then.
While the Republicans could now win the day by forcing a quorum and a vote in Austin, some political analysts say this may not be the best thing for the state in the long run. Meanwhile, two senators, one Democrat and one Republican, have presented proposals to deal with the redistricting question through a special nonpartisan commission.