87th LegislatureState HouseState SenateIn the Final Days of the First Special Session, Democrats Remain in Washington, D.C. What Comes Next?

One week remains in the 87th legislature's first special session and the path ahead is as unclear as it was when Democrats first flew to D.C.
August 3, 2021
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Time is now ticking on the July special session’s last days this week with no sign of Texas Democrats returning to their posts. Since July 13, the legislature has been stuck in a stalemate after nearly 60 Democratic members flew to Washington, D.C. to break quorum for the second time this year.

The 30-day clock runs out on Friday and the legislature’s business with which it was tasked by Governor Greg Abbott remains in limbo.

Among the biggest ticket items were election and bail reform, border security funding, social media censorship, and a requirement that athletes compete within their biological sex.

Each of these bills, and most of the rest of the agenda items, have passed the Senate — which, despite lacking nine D.C.-bound members during the initial quorum break, never lost quorum.

Also at-risk is the $410 million in funding for the legislature and its adjacent agencies. Checks to staffers and per diems to legislators stop on September 1 at the beginning of the 2022-2023 Fiscal Year. 

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Abbott vetoed that budget section after the May quorum break, saying, “There should be no pay for those who walk off the job.”

The governor said he’d allow the funding to be restored if election and bail reform were passed during the special session.

Both the House and Senate versions of Article X restoration have gone through committee, but the upper chamber has withheld its final approval while the House has been in disarray.

In a campaign email, Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) requested donations to help pay for his staff once Article X funding runs out, showing that Republicans are not bullish on the possibility of its restoration.

Texas Democrats’ near-month in the nation’s capital has been mostly spent trying to prod the U.S. Senate to pass the For the People Act — an election reform bill approved by the House of Representatives in March.

While most efforts have been futile thus far, various Texas legislators testified before a U.S. House committee hearing on the state’s election reform bill. They received a hero’s welcome from Democratic members and were pressed sharply by the chamber’s Republicans.

It’s been clear from the beginning, and acknowledged frequently, that Texas Democrats were betting the house on the passage of federal legislation. Over the weekend, the White House released a statement reiterating its support of the For the People Act.

But the bill has been successfully filibustered by the Senate GOP — aided by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-AZ) refusal to eliminate the filibuster, something most Democratic members across the board have come out in favor of since their use of the parliamentary tool during the previous administration.

Texas Democrats know they cannot remain in D.C. in perpetuity, but it’s unclear just how much longer they can last. Adding complication is the fact that the U.S. House just adjourned for its annual August recess, and the Senate will remain in session for the rest of this week before adjourning itself.

Since the July quorum break, Abbott has said he would call continuous special sessions “up until the 2022 midterm elections if necessary.” He’s also backed stripping truant Democrats of their committee assignments, something hotly debated within the House, and even suggested vacating their seats and holding special elections to fill them.

Once a quorum is restored, among the biggest qualms with levying punishment on the absent House members will be eliminated.

So far, Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) has ordered Democrats to repay their per diems they’ve been paid while on the lam. He also issued a civil arrest warrant for one member, Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio), who returned to Austin to engage in negotiations but then returned back to D.C. after being given a pass by the speaker.

Cortez, according to Phelan, assured his colleagues that he’d remain in Austin — a promise he broke. He is the only member whose arrest has been ordered by Phelan.

Negotiations on the election reform bill appear to still be in a stalemate and until that is assuaged, there will likely be no more action during this special session.

What comes after its expiration will be the next ball to drop — whether Republicans continue to push their election reform bill or Democrats waive the white flag so legislative funding is restored is yet to be seen. 

After a pandemic-laden interim frozen in motion, the Texas legislature has endured another immobile interim — but this entirely of its own making.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.