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Second Special Legislative Session To Pass GOP Voting Bill Convenes Without A Quorum In The Texas House

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Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
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House Speaker Dade Phelan gavels the House into session on Aug. 7, 2021.

The Texas House gaveled in for its second special session on Saturday without having the number of members needed to conduct official business — a sign that the tensions between Republicans and Democrats in the chamber persist as yet another overtime round gets underway.

Both chambers convened at noon for a second 30-day stretch ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott after the first special session ended in an impasse when House Democrats left the state to block a controversial GOP elections bill. That departure meant the House could not have a quorum, or the number of members needed to conduct official business.

It's unclear though if enough House Democrats — who have now prevented a quorum three times in the past four months over the elections legislation — intend to remain absent from the chamber long enough to again block the proposal, which is on Abbott's special session agenda for a second time, in a GOP-controlled Legislature.

The House adjourned minutes after gaveling in on Monday afternoon and declined to adopt what's known as a "call of the House," a procedural move that would lock the chamber doors and enable lawmakers to send law enforcement after the Democrats not present.

During the first special session that ended Friday, the chamber had voted overwhelmingly to issue the call after over 50 House Democrats flew to Washington, D.C, though it carried little weight since state authorities lack jurisdiction outside of Texas.

Two of 57 Democrats who broke quorum during that first special session were present on the House floor on Saturday — Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville and Bobby Guerra of Mission.

After the chamber adjourned, Lucio told reporters he returned to Austin for both professional and personal reasons, and said he anticipated several of his Democratic colleagues to also come back to the chamber in the coming days, which could help the House make quorum "as early as this week."

"I made my personal choice to bring the fight back to the Capitol, and I think everyone needs to make that decision for themselves," Lucio said. "For those that are gone, I applaud them."

The lower chamber convened Saturday as drama among Democrats played out over a lawsuit filed Friday, accusing the speaker, governor and state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, of infringing on their constitutional rights to free speech amid efforts to bring them back to Austin for the first special session that ended Friday.

That lawsuit has only heightened tensions among House members, a sentiment state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, emphasized in as he delivered his invocation to members after the chamber gaveled in Saturday.

"God, we're staring right now at a raging ocean of division and hostility in this chamber," he said. "Lord there are relationships that are shattered, cords of trust that have been broken, but you Lord bring the dead to life and what is broken you restore."

Meanwhile, and with the first special session them, the Democrats still in D.C. continued to disperse Saturday. But it was apparent they would not contribute to the tally needed for the House to regain quorum.

"If we have to come back here — I'm not saying we're leaving — but if we have to come back here, we're willing to fight," state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said Friday morning as Democrats marked the last day of the first special session.

Several of the roughly 40 members still in Washington were seen leaving their hotel throughout Friday, but some indicated they were not headed for the House floor. Others were seen in the hotel lobby, with their luggage in hand, just hours before the House was set to gavel in on Saturday.

Democrats on Friday evening were working to confirm that at least 50 members would not immediately return to the House, even if they were back in Texas. By Saturday morning, enough had quietly pledged to not show up to continue denying Republicans the quorum at least through the weekend.

Upon breaking quorum in early July, 57 members had provided letters to the House journal clerk asking for their voting machines to be locked in their absence. Lucio and Guerra — the two Democrats back on the floor Saturday — had checked in with the House journal clerk. The clerk's office said 55 would remain locked until those members also checked in.

As of Friday though, 27 Democrats said they planned to extend their time in the nation's capital to continue pushing Congress to act on federal voting legislation.

“Texas House Democrats continue in our fight to stop Texas Republicans’ efforts to undermine our democracy by passing their anti-voter legislation. Day by day, we will keep fighting with everything we have to protect Texans’ freedom to vote," Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said in a statement after the House adjourned for the day.

James Barragán contributed to this report