On May 7th, we published a column in which I opined that one of the only remaining options for Texas Democrats eager to stop the voter suppression bill known as SB 7 was one of the most dramatic at their disposal. I called on Democrats in the House to break quorum but never imagined that they would end up doing so in such dramatic fashion, with the clock rapidly ticking down on the legislative session.
After a madcap weekend in which Texas Republicans in both chambers produced a conference committee report at the 11th hour that added 12 pages of changes to a bill that was already designed to make it harder for Texans to vote. The resulting bill, which Republicans in the Texas Senate suspended their own rules in order to pass at the last minute late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, would impact nearly every facet of voting in Texas and drew another round of widespread national condemnation this weekend, with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and a slew of other national Democrats and activists calling out the legislation for as a continuation of Jim Crow.
By the time the bill advanced by the Texas Senate hit the House on Sunday, there was little margin for error for House leaders to pass the bill before midnight, the deadline to enact any measures that came out of conference committees. Knowing the time pressures Republicans faced, the Democratic caucus quickly mobilized a plan to essentially talk to the bill to death, with at least 30 members prepared to ask questions and call points of order to ensure the bill wasn’t passed.
House Republicans were eager to try to prevent such a scenario and started to initiate a series of moves that would stifle debate and allow them to fast-track the bill’s passage. It was a move consistent with the rushed manner that the Texas Senate moved the conference committee report through the chamber Saturday night, but Democrats knew they had one final ace up their sleeve.
Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, a Tarrant County Democrat and veteran legislator, began to text members of the Democratic caucus to leave the House chamber, and take the keys to their voting machines with them. As Democrats started to slide off the House floor, the few that remained initiated a series of parliamentary moves that led to the Republicans realizing they no longer had the numbers necessary to meet quorum and pass the bill.
Breaking quorum is a time-honored political tradition that dates back as far as Abraham Lincoln, who as a state legislator once leaped out of a window to end debate on a bill.
The rules of quorum are exceedingly simple. In most legislative bodies, 2/3rds of members need to be present to debate and vote on bills. If a minority party can’t do anything else to stop legislation, if they have enough members in the chamber, they can simply leave the building and break quorum, which immediately halts the process.
The fact that we were even in this position in the first place is a point of heated contention between Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, his colleagues in the Texas Senate and House Speaker Dade Phelan and the members of the lower chamber.
Phelan and House Republicans packed up shop on Thursday, adjourning until Sunday in protest of how few House bills received what they felt was a fair shake in the upper chamber. That truncated the timeline that Senate bills and conference committee reports would need to advance out of the House on Sunday, and helped create the time crunch the House was working under.
While Patrick and Senate Republicans, as well as some staunchly conservative House members, have been quick to blame Phelan and leading House Republicans for SB 7’s failure, as well as the House’s inability to act on a conservative bail reform proposal that was one of Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott’s top priorities. That bill became collateral damage to the showdown surrounding SB 7, with the legislative bottleneck that Democrats were able to create knocking other bills off the table with them.
Republicans close to Phelan have been pushing back on that narrative, claiming that the conference committee could have completed their work earlier in the process to ensure the bill had ample time to make it through the lower chamber and that SB 7 had been a priority for Republicans in both chambers all session and should have taken priority over some of the other conservative red meat that has already made it’s way to Abbott’s desk.
At any rate, Abbott has already signaled that SB 7 is bound for a special session agenda, and speculation is rampant about when that session will ultimately be called. Patrick has already issued demands that a June special session immediately be called, and Abbott was initially cool to that idea publicly, referring to it as “goofy” in an interview that caught Patrick wildly off guard.
As for the House Democrats who heroically fought until the Republicans decided to rig the process for a final time, they walked off the House floor and many made their way to Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin, where they spoke to reporters and began to get their heads around what’s yet to come, and how to strategize around the special session drama about to unfold.
The delay is a gift for progressives and voting rights advocates, who often expressed concern during the regular session that conservatives were outnumbering them in testimony and that the lack of a more organized presence from opponents of the bill was hurting their ability to effectively work against the bills.
With vaccination rates increasing and pandemic conditions starting to improve across the country, any window of time that gives Democrats and their allies an opportunity to more precisely plan and organize Texans to testify and protest against the bills creates a major opportunity for opponents of the bill.
Texas Republicans remain committed to disenfranchising as many Texans as possible, but the dramatic end to the debate around SB 7 last night proves that Texas Democrats in the legislature are prepared to go the distance and pull out all the stops as they fight for Texas voters.