AUSTIN, Texas – On Day 3 of Texas Democrats hunkering down in Washington to block tighter voting laws, Republicans back home settled into a new routine that boils down to turning the Democrats' gambit into yet another advantage for the GOP in 2022.
With time and a commanding majority on their side, Texas Republicans who began the summer with a long to-do list aimed at pushing the state farther to the right were filling their sudden free time Wednesday hammering Democrats as obstructionists.
Despite being unable to pass any bills, GOP lawmakers promised to keep coming to work at the Texas Capitol. They say Democrats are blocking widely popular measures to lower property taxes and give teachers more money. And they are showing their resolve to eventually pass a new voting bill that includes a raft of changes that on the whole would make it harder to cast a ballot in Texas.
“While these Texas Democrats collect taxpayer money as they ride on private jets to meet with the Washington elite, those who remain in the chamber await their return to begin work on providing our retired teachers a 13th check, protecting our foster kids, and providing taxpayer relief,” Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said.
The Republican criticism hinted at how the party is hoping to turn the screws on Democrats for the weeks to come. Both parties are mindful that the voting debate and the Democratic walkout are likely to resonate into next year, when the parties are battling over the governors office, as well as dozens of newly drawn statehouse districts.
In Washington, Texas Democrats were also settling into a new routine: meeting with members of Congress to press for action on voting rights at the federal level, but coming away with little signs of movement. President Joe Biden on Tuesday appeared to tacitly acknowledge the fading hopes for voting legislation, saying he would launch a nationwide campaign to arm voters with information on rule changes and restrictions ahead of the midterm elections.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the Texas Democrats from the floor of the Senate Wednesday, characterizing their flight to Washington, D.C., as an effort to “snap selfies, bask in the limelight, and beg Senate Democrats to take over Texas’ elections.”
“State legislators from Texas decided to grab some beer, hop on a private jet, and flee the state in what they are pretending is some great moral crusade,” the Kentucky Republican said, later adding, “the outrage is completely phony.”
Outside the hotel where the contingent is living and working after flying to Washington on chartered planes Monday, about a dozen demonstrators held signs with messages that included “Do your job!” and “Who paid for the private jet?”
The legislators insisted multiple times that no taxpayer funds were being used. The entire trip, they said, was paid for through donations and out of their own pockets.
The representatives also defended their decision to leave Texas, saying the move had already partially succeeded by shining a national spotlight on voting rights. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
“We are not here on vacation,” Democratic state Rep. Jose Menendez said. “I’d much rather be home with my family. We are here to do a job.”
Republicans say the voting changes are needed to fight fraud. However, fraud is very rare, and Democrats say the measures target their supporters.
“We will stay here for as long as it takes, and come back as many times as it takes, to give these protections to every Texas voter,” said Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes, one of the lead GOP authors of the voting bill.
For his part, state Rep. Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic chairman, said his caucus was “actively raising” funds to sustain a long-term stay in Washington. He said the Democrats fully intend to remain outside of Texas until the current session ends on Aug 7 "in order to kill this bill.”
“And in the meantime," he said, "we are going to shine a harsh national spotlight on Republican voter-suppression efforts.”
Asked how long they could hold out, Turner replied, “We’re not worried about it.”
The agenda Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered at the start of the 30-day session included hot-button conservative priorities such as border security measures and rules over how race can be taught in public schools. Republicans have not given up on those efforts, but since Democrats left, they have instead highlighted more middle-of-the-road issues.
Although Texas Republicans authorized state troopers to find and corral missing legislators, there remained no indication Wednesday that any action was being taken. Abbott has threatened Democrats with arrest once they return, as state troopers have no jurisdiction beyond Texas.
Taking off to Washington is the second time that Democratic lawmakers have staged a walkout over the voting overhaul, which they say will make it harder for young people, people of color and people with disabilities to vote. The legislation would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban drop boxes for mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers.
Khalil reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.