Democrats in the Texas Legislature bolted Monday for Washington, 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, he and raised the possibility of Democrats facing arrest upon returning home.
More than 50 Texas lawmakers landed in the Washington suburb of Sterling, Virginia, Monday evening and were taken on two large charter buses from a private terminal to a parking lot near the main terminal of Dulles Airport. Most wore street clothes rather than formal dress.
"We are determined to kill this bill," said state Rep. Chris Turner, who said he and his colleagues will remain away from their state until the special session ends early next month.
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."
The decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure 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.
Turner said the state lawmakers were calling on Congress to pass the Democrat-backed, federal voting rights law before they go on August recess, which is around the same time Texas' special session will end. He said the group would meet with Democrats across Washington, but a White House official said there are no current plans for a White House visit.
Turner said in order to pass the voting rights expansion law, the Senate may have to modify its procedural rules, but added, "I don't really care how they do it."
The mass exodus lays bare how Democrats are making Texas their last stand against the GOP's push 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 passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.
This is 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.
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.
In an interview with Austin television station KVUE, Abbott said he was prepared to keep calling special sessions though next year's election.
"If these people want to be hanging out, wherever they're hanging out on this taxpayer-paid junket, they're going to have to be prepared to do it for well over a year. As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done," Abbott said.
His spokeswoman did not immediately return a message.
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, 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.
As Democrats prepared to settle in for a possible long haul in Washington, it was not immediately clear who was footing the bill for the exodus. Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said he would use his own campaign funds to pay for hotels for House members but declined to comment on who funded the chartered flights.
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.