Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan requested that the Democrats “who are intentionally absent” from the chamber return their per diem special session pay after they fled the state to stonewall Republican-backed voting bills.
More than 50 Democrats left Austin on Monday, paralyzing the state’s House of Representatives and drawing ire from their GOP colleagues. The majority of the lawmakers boarded private jets to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials after Republicans pushed two pieces of legislation that would restrict certain ballot-casting processes and require more identification for voting.
“Under the Texas Constitution … per diem must be paid to each member for each day of a special session, regardless of whether the member is actually present,” Phelan wrote in a memorandum on Wednesday. “I am requesting all members who are intentionally absent for the purpose of preventing the House from conducting business during the special session to return your constitutional per diem to the state’s treasury immediately upon receipt.”
In the Lone Star State, the legislators receive $221 per day so long as the special session is in place.
On Tuesday, House Republicans voted to send law enforcement to hunt down the lawmakers “under warrant of arrest if necessary” after the leaders discovered they lacked a two-thirds quorum when they tried to bring one of the bills to a vote with only 80 members of the normal 150-member government body present. Two motions to initiate the move passed by an overwhelming 76-4 margin, with Democrats who chose not to vacate the state’s Capitol as the only “no” votes.
“What the law is, it’s in the Constitution, and that is the House, the state House of Representatives, who were here in the Capitol, in Austin right now — they do have the ability to issue a call to have their fellow members who are not showing up to be arrested, but only so long as that arrest is made in the state of Texas,” Abbott said on Fox News. “That’s why they have fled the state.”
“Once they step back into the state of Texas, they will be arrested and brought to the Texas Capitol, and we will be conducting business,” he added.
Under the Texas Constitution, two-thirds of lawmakers must be present to operate, and those who evade the task may be legally required to return.
The theatrics were in response to Abbott’s Thursday order to convene a special session to deliberate on Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, a pair of legislation that would ban drive-thru voting, implement more comprehensive voter identification requirements for mail-in ballots, and prohibit officials from sending voting applications to those who did not request them. Similar bills were introduced in May, and Democrats successfully staged an eleventh-hour walkout to halt voting on the measures.
The Texas Senate on Tuesday voted 18-4 to pass to SB 1, its version of the Republican-backed legislation. Eight state senators joined the House Democrats on their trip to Washington, though the number was not enough to halt business in the Senate.
GOP leaders have insisted the bills strengthen election integrity and make it easier to cast a ballot, while Democratic counterparts have called the moves “dangerous.”
“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” the state House Democratic Caucus said in a joint statement.
“We are now taking the fight to our nation’s Capitol,” the group added. “We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the ‘For the People Act’ and the ‘John Lewis Voting Rights Act’ to protect Texans — and all Americans — from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”