Democrats scramble to find a path forward on federal legislation on voting rights as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott calls new special session
By Fredreka Schouten and Dianne Gallagher, CNN
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has escalated the Republican push to pass new voting restrictions in the state, announcing on Thursday a second special session of the state legislature that could continue the bitter standoff with Democrats in the Texas House who broke quorum and fled to the nation’s capital to prevent action on the bill.
The move, which will force Texas Democrats to decide whether to remain out of state for another month, comes as voting rights groups step up their pressure on Democrats in Washington to find a way forward on federal legislation to counteract the raft of new state laws that make it harder to vote.
As the lobbying intensifies, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated to Democratic senators that votes could come soon on voting rights, according to two Democratic sources.
But events remain fluid. And it’s unclear whether a small group of Democratic senators, who have been negotiating behind the scenes on a streamlined voting measure, will reach a final agreement on a new bill before the Senate leaves for its August recess.
Voting rights groups, meanwhile, are trying to increase their pressure on the White House and congressional Democrats to do away with the Senate’s filibuster, a procedural tool that requires a 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation in the chamber.
A new TV commercial from a Democratic group calls on President Joe Biden to take more aggressive action to pass federal voting legislation. End Citizens United/Let America Vote Action Fund said it plans to spend $1 million on the ad campaign.
The commercial invokes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s criticism of the filibuster and implores Biden to “please tell the Senate: Reform the filibuster. Everything is at stake.”
Biden has called the raft of new voting restrictions a “21st Century Jim Crow assault” on voting rights, but he has not publicly advocated dismantling the filibuster that Senate Republicans deployed in June to block consideration of the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, dubbed the For the People Act.
“This moment calls for Presidential leadership, and we’re asking President Biden to fight like heck and use every tool available to him, including using his relationships in the Senate, to call for a reform to the filibuster to protect this sacred right,” Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund, said in a statement.
Another group, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said it’s launching a $500,000 ad campaign on Hulu, Instagram and other digital platforms to encourage voters of color to call their senators to demand action on federal election legislation.
A handful of Democratic senators now are working on a pared-down version of a voting rights bill, but no language has been released yet. A more substantive debate on voting legislation in the Senate might not happen until the fall — as the voting legislation has taken a back burner to other priorities, including the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill now making its way through the Senate.
Democrats in the House, meanwhile, have labored for weeks on a new version of their legislation to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the US Supreme Court in 2013.
On Friday, the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections will release a report summarizing its findings from the hearings it has hosted on voting rights and racial discrimination at the ballot box. The report is an important step in the House’s preparations to introduce its new version of its Voting Rights Act bill, known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act or HR 4.
The bill — which is not expected to be reintroduced for at least a few more weeks — seeks to restore the so-called preclearance requirement, weakened by the nation’s high court in its 2013 Shelby County v Holder decision. Before that decision, certain states and jurisdictions needed to get federal approval for changes to their voting practices.
If the John Lewis bill becomes law, it will undoubtedly be challenged in court. And the report being released Friday will be part of the record that its defenders will point to as they argue for its constitutionality. For now, the effort to advance the legislation travels to the Judiciary Committee, which will usher the bill onto the House floor once it’s reintroduced.
Texas showdown looming
So far, 30 news laws restricting voting have been enacted this year in 18 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Republican efforts to pass a far-reaching bill in Texas have been thwarted twice by state Democratic lawmakers. In May, just before the end of the year’s regular legislative session, Democratic legislators walked off the state House floor, leaving Texas Republicans without the quorum they needed to approve the voting legislation in the final hours before a midnight deadline.
Then, Texas state House Democrats stalled action during an initial special session when they broke quorum and flew to Washington, DC. More than 50 Democrats have remained out of the state since July 12.
Abbott’s proclamation Thursday announcing another special session included “election integrity” among the items on the agenda. This second special session is slated to begin at noon Saturday, twelve hours after the first special session is set to end.
“I will continue to call special session after special session to reform our broken bail system, uphold election integrity, and pass other important items that Texans demand and deserve,” Abbott said in a statement.
At least one Texas Democratic lawmaker struck a defiant tone on Thursday.
In a statement to CNN, Texas Rep. Ron Reynolds vowed to “stay off the House floor to deny a quorum until Governor Abbott drops the voter suppression from his agenda.”
Texas Rep. Gina Hinojosa, an Austin Democrat, declined to discuss the lawmakers’ future strategy in detail but told CNN that Texas Democrats “are as determined as ever to fight this second suppression session with as much vigor and determination.”
“We’re using every tool we have available now, but we can only hold the line so long in Texas,” she added. “My thought is that Congress needs to act now; the Senate needs to act now. The President needs to prioritize voting rights above all other issues.”
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CNN’s Tierney Sneed contributed to this report.