Texas Democratic lawmakers remain in DC to block GOP voting bills

It's the third day of the Democrats’ dramatic escape from Austin, in what Texas Republicans would call a desertion.

The Democratic departure to D.C. has effectively canceled the special session for as long as they can hold out.

U.S. senators who are working to pass a federal voting rights bill called the Democrats freedom fighters, while Republicans blasted their move as irresponsible. 

"It is their only point of salvation because their governor is not going to do it for their people," Senator Amy Klobuchar said.

The fleeing Texas House Democrats have brought the national spotlight to federal voting rights legislation that is stalled in Congress. 

"This is going on all around the country," Sen. Klobuchar said.

Surrounded by the supporting Texas delegates, Sen. Klobuchar outlined a bill she helped introduce, the For The People Act.

The bill aims to create automatic voter registration around the country, ensure felons who have completed their sentences have their rights restored, and expand voting by mail, among other conveniences. 

"What I love is it is firmly grounded in the Constitution. The Constitution said Congress has the right to make or alter federal election laws," Klobuchar explained.

But in a news conference of their own, Texas Republican lawmakers said they see it differently. 

"They go to D.C. and ask them to bring D.C. to Texas. How many think D.C. works well?" said State Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendwood).

US Capitol Building (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

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SB1, which the Texas Senate passed on Tuesday, won't go anywhere until the Texas House can reconvene. 

State Senator Bryan Hughes, who authored the bill, said that while it would crack down on fraud, it would also do a lot to expand early voting opportunities.

"On Election Day, if you’re in line, you must be allowed to vote. Now, for the first time, if you’re in line for early voting when the polls close, you must also be allowed to vote," Hughes explained. "During early voting, employers have to let you off work to vote."

But U.S. Senate Democrats instead cast the bill as a throwback to the 1960s.

"We live in a house democracy built, now that house is on fire," Senator Raphael Warnock said.

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Texas Republicans turned the focus from the voting bill Democrats are protesting to some of the other issues that they point out won't pass because House and some Senate Democrats bailed on the special session.

That includes issues that Republicans said were bipartisan.

Republicans and Democrats have been sparring all week about the controversial voting bill. 

Now, Republicans are trying to change the subject. 

Texas Democrats are adamant about not returning to the state until the special session ends.

"We're not fleeing, we are working here today, and we will continue to work," said State Senator Royce West (D - Dallas).

Republicans continue to claim they are getting taxpayer money for no work. 

They took the opportunity Wednesday to point out other pieces of legislation that won’t pass because of the democrat no-show.

"The Democrats who left the state must come back so we can deliver this very valuable relief to our retired teachers," said State Representative Greg Bonnen (R - League City). 

Aside from the controversial voting bill, there are other bills on the table like property tax relief and an extra check for retired teachers.

The extra check for retired teachers was not an item in the first legislative session.

It’s a one-time additional annuity payment for retired teachers, up to 2,400 for some.

The money to pay for those checks, discovered after the session, is from higher-than-expected tax revenue. 

Bonnen said the checks are a bipartisan issue poised to easily pass before this week.

"$700 million and provide up to $2,400 check to each retired teacher," Bonnn explained. "That includes about 185,000 retired teachers who live in the districts of the Democrats who have left the state and gone to Washington D.C." 

SMU political science professor Cal Jillson said Republicans are using the issue for political gain.

He said they’re purposely not talking about more divisive issues, like extra abortion legislation or bills targeting transgender students.

"What the Republicans are doing now are trying to find the most attractive things - teacher retirement pay, property tax relief - and say we were going to do this for you Texans, and the Democrats have blocked us. You should be upset with that," he said.

Lawmakers are getting paid $221 a day during the special session. 

House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement that Democrats should give that money back to the state. 

Democrats said they are working for their constituents and are trying to pressure the U.S. Senate to pass voting legislation to combat bills passed in other states and the one Texas is trying to pass. 

"There are powerful forces in Texas right now trying to roll back our rights to vote, but we know that the power of the people is stronger," said State Representative Victoria Neave (D – Dallas).

On Wednesday, the Texas House Democratic Caucus chair said Democrats are committed to stay out of Texas for the full 30-day special session. 

And they plan to use the national spotlight to implore Congress to pass the For The People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act. 

Even if Democrats stay away from Austin until August 7, Governor Abbott can continue to call more special sessions.