Everything’s bigger in Texas, including Democrats’ political courage. On Monday morning, Texas Democrats stopped playing by the GOP’s rules in a state Republicans control and threw a wrench into Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to ram through a slew of voter suppression laws. How did Democrats manage to actually stall the Republican war on voting? They stopped compromising and started fighting.
Fifty-eight Democratic members of the state’s House packed their bags and fled the state on Monday afternoon, just enough to paralyze legislative business in Austin. House rules required two-thirds of the chamber’s 150 members to be president for business to be conducted, which means none of the nightmares in the Texas GOP’s bag of tricks can find their way to Abbott’s eager pen. The Democrats will likely need to remain on the lam for weeks in order to wait out the legislative clock.
But House rules also say that if there’s not a quorum, a majority vote to “secure and maintain” one would mean that “All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained.”
So these free-range Texas House Dems may be fugitives soon, but their bold act in defense of voting rights has activists asking when U.S. Senate Democrats, who control that chamber, will pack up the bipartisanship and start acting with the same boldness. The national party can and should learn a valuable lesson from their colleagues in Texas.
It’s fitting that many of the Texas Democrats flew to Washington, D.C., where they plan to pass their time away rallying their federal colleagues around the importance of passing comprehensive voting rights legislation. Senate Democrats desperately need an injection of fighting spirit after all but abandoning the For the People Act, once their signature piece of voting rights legislation as Republicans are furiously pushing state laws intended to roll back voting.
“Texas Democrats are putting on a master class for Washington on what it looks like to defend our democracy,” Texan and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro told The Daily Beast on Monday. “Congressional Democrats would be wise to follow their lead by using every tool in the toolbox to protect voting rights, including addressing the filibuster.”
Castro isn’t alone in hoping a stalled-out Democratic Washington might borrow some urgency from the Lone Star State. “Ending the filibuster would be a great way to celebrate Texas Dems for courageously protesting voter suppression,” a frustrated Robert Reich tweeted. “Preserving our democracy is what we elected you to do.”
They’ve failed to do that in Washington, and party morale has never been lower. Earlier this month, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered Democratic efforts to bring the For the People Act to the floor. When asked about the future of voting rights on The Mehdi Hasan Show over the weekend, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki could only find the energy to say she’s “not gonna accept that it died,” all but confirming For the People is, in fact, dead.
The lack of urgency on display in the Senate is infuriating to activists and voters who have watched Democrats squander the better part of a year offering compromises to a GOP that has repeatedly made clear its categorical unwillingness to work with Democrats on anything.
In Texas, Democrats trapped in the minority are thinking outside the box to prevent Republicans from gutting voting rights. In Washington, Mitch McConnell’s Republicans are in the minority but still seem to have near-total control of the legislative agenda. What gives?
One factor at play is how close state lawmakers are to the real effects of voter suppression. Whether in Texas, Georgia, Arizona, or any of the states where Republicans introduced over 380 voter suppression bills this year, state lawmakers are hearing from angered and terrified voters desperate to protect their right to representative government. Working in Congress can have an insulating effect on lawmakers, blinding them to the threats unfolding in their communities.
There is no better example of dangerous blindness than Arizona’s Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Earlier this month, Business Insider uncovered a 2010 video in which Sinema, then an Arizona state representative, savaged the very idea of the filibuster as a “false pressure to get to 60” votes, and advocated using reconciliation to work around Republican opposition. Ten years later, Sinema’s position at the extreme end of filibuster protectionism is utterly unrecognizable from the progressive she once was.
Another issue is Senate Democrats’ fixation on institutionalism at the expense of functioning government. Here’s a Washington insider secret: When a Democratic lawmaker says they believe in “protecting the institution” of the Senate—as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin often does—what they’re really saying is, “I’m afraid Republicans will say I’m not being bipartisan.” And believe me, nothing frightens Democrats more than the threat of being labeled uncooperative.
That fear is how Minority Leader McConnell and his Senate Republicans have held on to what is essentially a veto on any business Senate Democrats want to bring forward. Mitch and his crew were never worried about ideas like “institutionalism” or “norms” when they pulled historic stunts like jamming through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the dying days of the Trump administration.
The lawmakers who fled Austin in protest captured the imagination of rank-and-file Democrats because they seem to understand better than Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that the modern GOP is not an entity that can be compromised with. The modern Trumpist GOP is a party that only understands the language of domination and coercion, as Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks reminded us at this week’s CPAC carnival of crazy. Trump’s GOP is not a compromise machine; it’s a sledgehammer.
What the Texas Democrats did was certainly not “institutionalist” by any definition. Their disrespect for “the process” likely makes Manchin and other rules-fetishists gag. But fighting an irregular adversary can often be messy business. Texas Democrats chose a wild but powerful play to try and prevent a GOP-driven calamity for voting rights across their state. It’s a strategy that could work, provided the Texas Democrats stick to their guns and ignore the name-calling sure to flow from the right-wing media swamp.
Senate Democrats should take the fight to protect voting rights as seriously as their Lone Star counterparts, even if that means abandoning their obsession with bipartisanship and advancing some form of voting-rights protections alone. Fleeing their own legislative session may be a desperate measure, but it will take no less to thwart a Republican Party determined to take apart our democracy to maintain its own hold on power.