On Thursday, in response to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan removing Democrat State Rep. Joe Moody (El Paso) as the House speaker pro tempore, the leaders of the various House Democrat caucuses issued a joint statement condemning the action.
“We know first hand that Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody has done more than any other member on the House Floor to protect our Chamber and the institution of the Texas House. It’s unfortunate that Speaker Phelan has been unable to do the same.”
They went on to add, “We are a coequal branch of government. When Governor Abbott decided to defund the whole legislature, Speaker Phelan was silent. There needs to be 76 members who decide who our next Speaker is, and more than 60 are not there.”
The joint statement was issued by State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D–Dallas), chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus; State Rep. Chris Turner (D–Grand Prairie), chairman of the House Democrat Caucus; State Rep. Nicole Collier (D–Ft. Worth), chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus; and State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D–Houston), chairman of the Legislative Study Group.
Also on Wednesday, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan released another statement, saying, “In an effort to further compel House Democrats to return to the State of Texas, I am chartering a plane that will be on standby in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. I am demanding all of our colleagues in D.C. to contact my staff immediately in order to secure their seat on the plane and return to Austin in order to do the state’s business. The State of Texas is waiting.”
A short time thereafter, the same group of lawmakers responded by saying:
“The Speaker should save his money. We won’t be needing a plane anytime soon, as our work to save democracy from the Trump Republicans is just getting started. We’re not going anywhere and suggest instead the speaker end this charade of a session, which is nothing more than a monthlong campaign commercial for Gov. Abbott’s re-election. The speaker should adjourn the House Sine Die.”
The rebuttal comes from lawmakers who are also current House committee chairmen, appointed by Phelan himself.
Anchia chairs the House Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee; Turner chairs the House Business & Industry Committee; Collier chairs the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee; and Coleman chairs the House County Affairs Committee.
What Has Been or Can Be Done?
Since Texas law enforcement officials have no jurisdiction outside of the state, there is very little that can be done to compel them to return, with the exception of political pressure.
State Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R–Fredericksburg) released a statement on Thursday indicating he had verified that neither the Texas Department of Public Safety nor the House sergeant-at-arms had been given the explicit direction by Phelan to arrest lawmakers that may be residing in Texas (of which there have been reports), including one lawmaker who has publicly admitted he is still in the state. Interestingly, though, when the lawmakers first broke quorum on Tuesday, a call of the House motion was successfully employed that directed the House sergeant-at-arms to locate all members not present and secure a quorum “under warrant of arrest if necessary.”
Gov. Greg Abbott has now said on multiple occasions that he will continue to call special sessions until his agenda gets done. Thus far, at least publicly, House Democrats seem undeterred.
Abbott has also publicly called for Phelan to strip the chairmanships of lawmakers not present, something Phelan has indicated he does not have the authority to do. But Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi, a former House lawmaker, believes he does.
Abbott hinted in a radio interview Tuesday that he could vacate their seats and order special elections to fill them. “They may be out of the state for a month … could be 10 months. Who knows? If they’re gone too long, their seats may have to be vacated and be filled in a special election if they don’t step back and come back to the Lone Star State.”
On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick publicly called on Abbott to change the current quorum requirement of two-thirds to that of a simple majority in the next special session. He said, “Texans expect their legislature to work and not be held hostage by a few legislators who are exploiting the quorum requirement. The majority of other state legislatures require a simple majority plus one. For that reason, I am respectfully requesting that you add to the call, a change the quorum requirement to a majority through a constitutional amendment. The Texas Legislature should be able to move forward and serve the people of Texas when a majority of its members are present.”
What is Next?
It is unclear how long all of this will go on. As of right now, the House is paralyzed and unable to conduct any business, including committee hearings. Meanwhile, the Senate has passed out several of Abbott’s special session agenda items, having enough lawmakers still present to do so.