Dozens of legislators from across nation join Texas Democrats in DC for voting rights push

Raga Justin, Emily Caldwell and Allie Morris The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON — More than 100 legislators from 30 states converged on the District of Columbia Tuesday, pressuring the Biden administration to pass national voting rights protections and bolstering the Texas Democrats’ monthlong mission to thwart election bills in Austin.

The Texas legislators are having to consider the possibility that Gov. Greg Abbott will immediately issue the call for another special session after the current one ends by midnight Friday, as he said he will do.

Members have not explicitly stated whether they plan on staying in Washington for the next special session.

According to the Quorum Report, a political newsletter, two members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus have left Washington for vacation in Europe. The website did not identify the members. Caucus officials said they were “unable to confirm” whether the two members left.

A rally outside Capitol grounds Tuesday drew about 100 attendees, featuring legislators from states including Arizona, Georgia and Florida.

The crowd drew a high-profile cast of speakers — many of them Democratic senators whom Texas Democrats have already met with. Many, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, roundly praised the Texans.

“Our freedom fighters that are here seeking salvation — the Texas legislators — thank you for the declaration for American democracy,” Klobuchar said.

The crowd adopted the rallying cry “Recess can wait — Democracy can’t,” reflecting building urgency as the August recess approaches. That end-of-week deadline limits the amount of time left to pass voting rights legislation that lawmakers across the country say is crucial.

Legislators from Georgia said they consider their state ground zero for voter suppression.

U.S. Sen. Rafael Warnock, D-Ga., said the U.S. is seeing similar efforts to suppress voting rights in Republican-led state legislatures across the country.

“When they should’ve been busy trying to suppress the virus, they were busy trying to suppress your vote,” he said. “This is the delta variant of Jim Crow voting laws, and the only vaccination is federal legislation.”

The rally marked a last-minute effort by state legislators to appeal to the Biden administration and hesitant U.S. senators to pass the For the People Act, an omnibus voter rights bill that also seeks to limit the impact of “dark money” in elections and to impose nationwide ethics standards.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, a Republican, said there’s still time for House Democrats to return before Friday’s deadline, but acknowledged time is short. He predicted lawmakers will be called back to Austin for a second special session by next week.

“We will have another special session and (the Democrats) should be here to do the people’s business,” he said during a press conference in Austin Tuesday. “I don’t know when that call is going to be, I presume it’s very quickly.”

Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen said “election integrity remains at the forefront of the conversation.”

“We have worked diligently with our colleagues. We have received all constructive criticism and remain steadfast in our resolve that we will accomplish that goal,” he said.

Taylor declined to offer any specifics about how the legislation might change in response to concerns from Democrats that the bill would eliminate 24-hour voting and throw up hurdles for people who want to vote by mail.

Taylor said serious negotiations can’t begin until Democrats return. “We can’t do it long distance when they’re in DC,” Taylor said. “The legislative process requires meetings, getting together, having discussions, taking amendments. It doesn’t happen over Zoom calls.”

Democrats, however, have said they were cut out of negotiations during the regular session. They’ve also criticized the public hearing process in the special session. Last month, a House committee didn’t begin taking public testimony on the GOP-backed elections bill until after midnight and then voted it out near daybreak.

In Washington, meetings with President Joe Biden remain elusive. In a Monday briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki evaded directly answering if a meeting was still on the table by instead noting Biden’s support for voting rights legislation. Vice President Kamala Harris met with the Texas Democrats last month.

“The president would love to sign voting rights legislation into law,” Psaki said. “This will continue to be a fight of his presidency, and that’s why he’s asked the vice president to lead this effort.”

Overall, the Texas House Democrats in Washington credit their walkout as the spark that ignited a national push for federal voting protections.

“While the Republicans want to downplay the work that we’ve done since we’ve been here in D.C… . The reality is that there is a movement that was started with the walkout of the Texas Democrats,” state Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas said. “We made this a priority, not only just in the state of Texas but in this country, and what we see is other lawmakers coming to stand with us because they understand how big of a deal this is.”