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Texas House Democrats Invoke the ‘Nuclear Option,’ Fleeing to D.C. to Stall Voting Restrictions

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Updated: | Originally published:

More than 50 Texas House Democrats fled the state and headed on two planes to Washington, D.C., on Monday to stall the passage of two controversial GOP-backed bills that would restrict access to voting across the state.

Texas House Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the organizers of the trip, told TIME in a phone call shortly before the Democratic lawmakers’ flight that the group was heading to the capital to call on Congress “with courage and conviction” to ask the Senate to protect voting rights and pass the For The People Act.

By fleeing the state—and risking arrest—Texas House Democrats are denying their Republican colleagues the quorum needed to vote on the bills during a special session of the state legislature that is underway. It’s a temporary fix, Fischer admits, but he says they are trying to send a bigger message. “We are holding the line here in Texas,” he says. “If Republicans are silencing our voices here, they’ll do it anywhere in America and we’re going to stand up to that.”

Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that Democrats who left the state Monday would face arrest upon their return. “As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done,” Abbott told Austin’s KVUE-TV.

Republicans in Texas’ State House voted Tuesday morning to formalize Abbott’s arrest threat by approving a Call of the House, which enables the Sergeant-at-Arms to compel Democrats to return to the House chamber—even detaining them if necessary. (Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction in D.C., however, so the vote will likely only have an impact once lawmakers return home.)

Abbot had said in a statement earlier on Monday that Democrats’ actions “inflicts harm on the Texans who elected them to serve.”

“As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state,” Abbott said.

On Tuesday, Texas House Democrats joined two of the states’ Democratic representatives in Congress—Lloyd Doggett and Marc Veasey—for a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol. “(Republicans) wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t think it would have a negative outcome, particularly on Brown and Black voters in the state of Texas and in the other states that are doing similar style legislation,” Veasey said.

In late May, a group ofTexas House Democrats staged a walkout from the State Capitol to break quorum and prevent the passage of voting restrictions hours before the end of the legislature’s regular session. Abbott has since called a 30-day special session, which began last week, to revive efforts to pass the voting bills, among others. Texas Democrats also fled the state in 2003 to break quorum in response to Republican redistricting legislation.

The Texas voting bills would empower partisan poll watchers, ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting as well as mail ballot drop boxes and no longer allow local election officials to send out vote-by-mail applications to voters unless they are explicitly requested. Democrats say they will restrict voting access and disproportionately impact voters of color in the state. Republicans say they are necessary safeguards after widespread claims of fraud during the 2020 election, though no evidence of such fraud has been presented in the state.

Voting experts in Texas argue that while the Democrats’ escape to Washington may be effective in garnering publicity for their opposition to the GOP’s legislation, it may not be a viable long-term strategy. Abbott has the power to keep on calling special sessions, and it’s unclear how long lawmakers will be able to remain apart from their families and jobs outside the legislature.

“This is definitely the nuclear option in approaching this legislation,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Republicans control every level of government and can continue their legislative blitzkrieg after they wear the Democrats down. They can’t stay away forever.”

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, says the Democrats’ move is “very polarizing,” and a stunt to portray “Democrats as the saviors of democracy and the Republicans as the dark forces trying to destroy democracy.” For Republicans and their base, standing firm to their position will likely be viewed as “fighting the good fight,” he says.

For Democrats to succeed at stopping or restraining the bills, Jones says public opinion either must turn against Abbott and Texas Republicans or Democrats must obtain some sort of concessions in the legislation.

Texas Democrats’ actions did draw praise from Vice President Kamala Harris, who said during a voting rights meeting that she applauds the lawmakers for “standing for the rights of all Americans,” according to CBS News. President Joe Biden is expected to deliver a speech focusing on voting rights tomorrow.

James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which advocates for voting rights, hopes the Democrats’ move will send a clear message to the President and to lawmakers in Washington who do not support doing away with the filibuster, which could make it easier for Senate Democrats to pass federal voting rights legislation. “There’s a particular message here to Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin, Senate Democrats and President Biden,” he says. “Elected officials in Texas are now literally fleeing the state and avoiding arrest to protect voting rights. Isn’t the most minimal thing that [they] can do is kill the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation?”

During last weekend’s public hearing for the legislation, many members of the public who arrived at 8 a.m. to testify were waiting until late at night and the early hours of the morning to be heard. “That isn’t an accident,” Slattery says. “That is a choice to lard up the agenda of the hearing so that most members of the public who wanted to testify would not be able to stay until they had the opportunity to.”

Voting rights advocates say the legislation being considered in the special session in Texas are largely the same as the bills that failed to pass during the regular session. The bills would “make it even more difficult to vote, especially for senior, disabled, and low-income Texans,” says Anthony Gutierrez, executive director for Common Cause Texas.

In response to Democrats’ earlier walkout from the state legislature in May, Abbott vetoed funding for the state legislature and its staff. A bill to restore that funding is also on this special session’s agenda; if Democrats remain in Washington, many staffers’ salaries remain in the air. While Democrats blame Abbott for creating this funding crisis, Republicans say Democrats bear responsibility.

“These actions put at risk state funding that will deny thousands of hard-working staff members and their families a paycheck, health benefits, and retirement investment so that legislators who broke quorum can flee to Washington D.C. in private jets,” Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement on Monday.

Fischer, for his part, is not deterred, nor is he sure when he will return home. “I’ve got the largest suitcase I have in my house and I threw in extra socks and so…,” he said before his plane to Washington took off. “We’ve got 27 days left in the session and I’m prepared to stay out those 27 days.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com