At the Texas Capitol, a Day for Arrest Warrants, Not Legislation

The Texas House sergeant-at-arms spent his day delivering 52 civil arrest warrants to Democrats who fled rather than enact the Republican voting agenda.,


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AUSTIN, Texas — Just after the Texas House of Representatives, well short of the quorum needed to pass legislation, quit for the day after meeting for less than an hour, Michael Black, the House sergeant-at-arms, left his office just outside the second-floor chamber to embark on an extraordinary mission.

Suddenly entrusted with a pivotal assignment in the bitter showdown in the Republican-led Texas Legislature, Mr. Black was given the job of distributing 52 civil arrest warrants to compel the presence of the absentee Democrats who bolted the chamber during the final hours of the legislative session in May. Their goal was to deny the House a quorum and thus block the passage of a restrictive election measure.

Such was life at the imposing red granite Capitol on Wednesday after the House vote on Tuesday night to authorize state law enforcement officials to round up and potentially arrest the missing Democrats. The 80-12 vote empowered the House sergeant-at-arms to compel the attendance of missing members “under warrant of arrest, if necessary.”

Eleven Democrats were back in the chamber on Tuesday and united in casting the dissenting votes in support of their absentee colleagues. They were joined by one Republican, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, who sometimes bucks his party’s leadership. But attendance was short of a quorum. And so, clutching a black binder and accompanied by two others from his office, the legislative enforcer on Wednesday embarked on his journey.

First he took the elevator to the fourth floor. The first stop was the office of Representative Hubert Vo, a Houston Democrat. After knocking but receiving no answer, he then knelt to slide the warrant under the door. It was the same story at the nearby office of Representative Yvonne Davis, a Dallas Democrat.

One floor down, the door was open at the office of Representative Senfronia Thompson, a member of the House for nearly half a century. But the Houston representative wasn’t there, and a senior staff member said she didn’t know where she was.

Mr. Black left the warrant with the aide and continued his floor-by-floor march through the Capitol. “As long as it takes,” he said when asked for an expected timetable for delivering the warrants.

The involvement of the sergeant-at-arms is the latest turn in a steadily escalating confrontation between, on one side, Gov. Greg Abbott and the 83 Republicans who control the House and, on the other, most of the 67 Democrats in the chamber, who have forced the governor to call not one, but two, special sessions by refusing to show up to produce the quorum needed to do business.

After the vote on Tuesday, Dade Phelan, the speaker of the Texas House, signed the 52 civil arrest warrants to start the roundup. In addition to Mr. Black and his team, members of the Texas Department of Public Safety could also be dispatched throughout the state to go the homes and businesses of the absentee members and escort them back to Austin.

After staying in Washington, D.C., through the first 30-day session, many Democrats are believed to be back in Texas, but they seemed to be poised to continue their resistance against the voting bill and other conservative measures the governor has included in both special sessions.

“Every day the House can’t move forward on these voter bills and other measures is a good day,” said Chris Turner, the Democratic leader, who received his warrant by email. He described the special session as a “30-day campaign commercial” for Mr. Abbott’s re-election campaign, adding, “Right now we’re not interested in participating in it.”

Representative Celia Israel, an Austin real estate agent who was elected to the House in 2014, arrived back in the capital city on Monday night from Washington, aware that she might be considered a fugitive in the eyes of Republicans.

“Today was trash day,” she said. “I took the trash cans out, looked on both sides of the street. The coast was clear.”

Asked if she planned to return to the chamber, she responded with a full-throated “Hell no” and declared: “I didn’t sacrifice my business, my family time and crispy tacos just to go down to walk onto the House floor and help them pander to 5 percent of the electorate.”

Ms. Israel called the order to issue arrest warrants a “new low” and said she “wouldn’t answer the door” if a trooper came to her home.

“They cannot come into my house,” she said. She also noted that she has two “guard dogs” — a terrier and a golden retriever — who would “let me know when anybody is in the front yard.” She added: “This is a civil matter. I have not committed any crime.”

The move by the Texas House to round up the lawmakers came hours after the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, acting on a petition by Mr. Abbott and Mr. Phelan, overturned an earlier ruling in the matter.

That ruling, from a district court judge in Travis County, where Austin is, had determined that the two officials, both Republicans, did not have the authority to order the arrest of their fellow elected officials.

The impasse could have effects that go beyond the current disputes.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said that the “biggest impact” of the widening confrontation could be “an irrevocable split” in the bipartisan working relationship that Texas lawmakers have often prided themselves on.

“The Texas Legislature runs on connections — it runs on good will — and without that good will the machine powers down very quickly,” he said. “Having that spirit of comity jeopardized, it reshapes the Texas Legislature in a way that makes it harder to get things done.”

Many Republicans say the same thing.

“What’s happening is disgraceful and an embarrassment to Texas,” said Representative Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford in North Texas. “They need to come back to work.”

Mr. Turner, the Democratic leader, said Democrats were “taking it one day at a time” and had been getting together in Zoom meetings every morning to discuss strategy.

“At some point in the future, of course, we’ll return,” he said. “But I don’t know that’s going to be anytime soon.”

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