The final weekend of the 87th Legislature, that ended Monday, was part climax and part anti-climax.
At stake was the effort by the Republicans to make it tougher to vote, an effort that had drawn criticism on Saturday by Democratic President Joe Biden.
He called it “un-American” and “part of an assault on democracy.”
He was talking about Senate Bill 7, whose House counterpart was House Bill 6.
Republicans call it an election integrity bill. Democrats refer to it as a voter suppression Bill.
Biden said the effort was like several others around the country.
“Today, Texas legislators put forth a bill that joins Georgia and Florida in advancing a state law that attacks the sacred right to vote, ” Biden said in a statement.
“It’s part of an assault on democracy that we’ve seen far too often this year — and often disproportionately targeting Black and brown Americans.”
The dramatic climax/anti-climax of the legislature’s final weekend of its session was on Sunday night in the House , which had before it the latest bedraggled version of SB 7.
In a rushed conference committee, to which Democratic members of the committee were not invited, the resulting bill was nonetheless passed by the Senate and sent to the House for concurrence, so the voting law change could be sent to the governor for his signature.
But the outnumbered House Democrats (67 D, 83 R) didn’t want it any more the outnumbered Democrats (13 D, 18 R) in the Senate had.
The bill had to pass by midnight Sunday because it was day 139 of the 140-day session.
The final day was reserved for corrections and other fine-tuning.
So the House Democrats did all they could to stall — asking windy questions and making speeches about nothing.
But as it got to be about 10 p.m., and sensing that Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan was about to pull the plug and cut off discussion, Grand Prairie Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic caucus, texted his members:
“Leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” The Texas Tribune reported.
The outnumbered Democrats had turned to the last tool in their box — to break a quorum needed to do business.
A quorum requires at least two-thirds — that’s 100 of the 150 members — to be present. So absence of 51 members can freeze the House.
Gradually, Democrats began to remove the keys from the electronic voting boxes built into each member’s desks — so that no one could vote on their machine while they were absent.
And then they would drift out of the House chamber, and the Capitol, to a Black East Austin church to re-assemble.
The decline in numbers of Democrats began to be noticed, and even commented about on line by some journalists. By 10:30 the Democrats were gone.
Speaker Phelan noticed it, too. About 11 p.m., he adjourned the House until 10 a.m. Monday — sounding the death knell for SB 7.
The speaker was not pleased.
“Today, on the second to last day of session, a number of members have chosen to disrupt the legislative process by abandoning the legislative chamber before our work was done,” Phelan said in a statement.
“In doing so, these members killed a number of strong, consequential bills with broad bipartisan support.”
Gov. Greg Abbott had learned of the Democrats fleeing the capitol, and also was not pleased.
At 10:54 p.m., his office emailed out a statement:
“I declared Election Integrity and Bail Reform to be must-pass emergency items for this legislative session. It is deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans that neither will reach my desk. Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas.
“They will be added to the special session agenda. Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session.”
A special section already is expected to do redistricting after delayed census numbers become available in the fall.
And on Monday, for good measure on retribution, Abbott says he will line-item veto funding of the legislative branch.
“I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the legislature. Article 10 funds the legislative branch. No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities.
“Stay tuned,” he concluded.
The Republican effort in Texas to make voting more restrictive, and the fact the Democrats managed to sidetrack it — at least temporarily — got attention not just in national newspapers, but on television network news shows.
While the failed SB 7 also shortened the early voting hours on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said that change could hamper so-called “souls to the polls” — Black efforts at turning out voters after church.
“We’re going to be able to buy beer at 10 o’clock in the morning but we can’t vote until 1 p.m.,” West said.