More than 50 Democratic state lawmakers from Texas have now been holed up in a hotel in Washington, D.C., for longer than a week.
The Democrats fled their state to deny Republicans a quorum in an effort to block restrictive voting measures from being passed during an ongoing special legislative session.
While in Washington, the Texas lawmakers are waging an uphill battle to get Congress to pass federal voter protections — and now dealing with an outbreak of breakthrough coronavirus cases in their midst.
State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, from Austin, is one of the Texas Democrats in Washington.
She said there's a lot about this situation she didn't see coming. For one, she has school-age children, and she promised them she'd be around this summer.
"I've had to break those promises to my kids," she said. "I didn't anticipate this. I didn't expect to be here. I expected to be with my family. But this fight is that important."
Texas Democrats are currently fighting on two fronts:
- They are blocking legislation that would, among its provisions, crack down on 24-hour polling locations and drive-through and curbside voting as well as create a number of new criminal penalties related to voting.
- And they are pushing lawmakers in Washington to pass sweeping laws that would make it harder for states to limit access to the ballot.
Hinojosa said pushing for change in the nation's capital, where Democrats control the White House and Congress, might actually be easier than stopping a bill in Texas.
"Here in Washington we are fighting on a front where we can win," she said. "In Texas, we don't have the votes. Republicans aren't willing to work in a bipartisan fashion. The whole premise of their bill is false. It's based on the 'big lie,' " she added, referring to baseless claims about the 2020 election that former President Donald Trump and his allies have pushed.
Republicans back in Texas said this entire plan is a waste of everyone's time.
State Sen. Larry Taylor said in a recent news conference that he thinks it's a terrible idea for Democrats to spend their time asking for Congress to insert itself in this fight.
"It's a tragedy for the people of Texas and it's an affront to the people of Texas," he said, "that people from Texas would go to D.C. and ask them to bring D.C. to Texas. How many of you think what's going in D.C. works versus what we do here in Texas?"
An unclear path ahead
Federal legislation, though, remains at a standstill.
Last month Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a sweeping voting bill, called the For the People Act, and Senate Democrats aren't in agreement about eliminating or changing the legislative filibuster. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the For the People Act.
Without changes to the filibuster, it is all but impossible for existing Democratic voting legislation to go to a vote in the Senate.
After meeting with Texas Democrats last week, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin saidhe would not approve carving out an exception to the filibuster for voting protections.
But Texas state Rep. Alex Dominguez said it's still significant they've been able to meet with Vice President Harris and the Senate leadership.
"I think in the few days that we have already been here we have made a substantial impact to drive the attention and, in many ways, the conversation at the national level squarely focused on voter rights, and the types of bills — such as the one that Texas is facing — that would suppress or frustrate the freedom to vote," he said.
Back to Zoom
Texas Democrats are dealing with another obstacle: a growing number of lawmakers who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Texas House Democrats have said all their members are vaccinated and, so far, the positive cases in Washington have experienced no symptoms or just mild ones.
The cases have, however, put a dent in their ability to meet with folks on Capitol Hill. Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds said they've had to move some of that online.
"We are still working diligently through the COVID protocols that we have already set in place," he said. "So even though we are not doing as many in-person visits, we are still having many meetings via Zoom."
There's also a time crunch. Lawmakers plan on waiting out the current special legislative session, which ends in a few weeks. But Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has all but promised to call for yet another special session as soon as this one ends. He said voting legislation will again be on the agenda.
Dominguez said it's unclear what will happen if another special session is called.
"I believe that we are willing to stay as long as necessary," he said. "However, finances and also missing our family, our jobs, are certainly important considerations for us."
Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.