WASHINGTON — State Rep. John Bucy III was running on no sleep.
The Austin Democrat had just spent 23 hours in the basement of the Texas Capitol, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with his House colleagues as they listened to hours of emotional testimony from members of the public about the latest iteration of a divisive GOP-backed election bill at the center of the special session agenda.
By the time he left the hearing and stepped into the early morning sun July 11, members of his party were at their wits’ end with Republican lawmakers and their relentless pursuit of election law changes that Democrats say would create significant barriers to the ballot box and disenfranchise voters of color. Republicans say the effort is designed to crack down on fraud and restore election integrity.
Democrats had killed a similar measure 42 days earlier, when they walked off the floor of the Texas House chamber in the final hours of the regular legislative session. But even as they celebrated the bill’s demise, conversations about how to fight the proposal during the inevitable special session had already started behind closed doors.
How Texas state Democrats’ exodus from Austin to D.C. may affect voter rights
Democrats from Texas describe their mission for voting rights that wound up on Capitol Hill.
STAFF VIDEO, USA TODAY
By the time the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies approved the revised version of the legislation on that first Sunday of the special session by a vote of 9-5, with Bucy joining all other Democrats on the committee in voting no, talk of a second quorum break among Democrats had already reached a fever pitch.
Bucy closed his eyes for a few hours after the hearing before his phone started to ring, flashing Driftwood Rep. Erin Zwiener’s name. She told him: Pack a 45-pound suitcase and one carry-on bag. Be ready to leave the next day.
Democrats leave state: Texas Democrats leave state to block GOP voting bill in special session
The call was the final step of a hastily hatched plan to convince at least 51 of the state’s 67 Democratic lawmakers to not only break quorum for the second time in five weeks, but to board two planes headed to an unknown destination without a clear end date in mind.
Interviews with more than a dozen state lawmakers from their Washington hotel in the days after the quorum break reveal exactly how secret meetings, phone trees and a covert rendezvous at the local plumbers union catapulted Texas House Democrats into the spotlight and the center of a national fight over voting rights.
Breaking quorum in the Texas House involves extensive planning. The last-resort tactic requires vacating the state to deny the majority party enough members to conduct business while avoiding the reach of Texas law enforcement officers who lack jurisdiction outside the state to compel the lawmakers to return to work.
Conversations about leaving in July started in earnest once Democrats killed the election bill during the regular session. It was immediately clear that Gov. Greg Abbott planned to create a new opportunity to move the bill forward by convening a special session with the election bill and other conservative priorities on the agenda, including further limiting teaching about racism in public schools, expanding abortion restrictions and banning transgender girls from competing in girls sports.