(CNN)Texas House Democrats have ended their historic quorum break, undertaken to block restrictive voting legislation, which now paves the way for a Republican-backed election overhaul bill to pass in the Lone Star State.
In a surprising turn of events, at least three new Democrats returned to the floor. That brought the total number to the required two-thirds of members present for a quorum. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, announced a quorum was present just after 6 p.m. local time, and the Senate messenger dropped off a slew of bills passed already in this special session by the Senate, which were quickly referred to committees for action. The special session ends early next month.It’s the first time the Texas House has reached quorum in 37 days, meaning it is also the first time any legislative business can begin in the House during the second called special session. The Texas House rules require a quorum to be present before conducting any state legislative business. Democratic Reps. Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Walle released a joint statement explaining their return to the floor on Thursday, saying they were “proud of the heroic work” accomplished by breaking quorum but “Now, we continue the fight on the House floor.” The statement noted the need to manage the Covid-19 surge in the state as behind the decision. Coleman, who previously broke quorum but did not join others in DC due to a recent leg amputation, gave the invocation Thursday, saying in part, “I pray that we, all of us look inside about where we want this world to go, this state, this House, and look at it from the perspective of trying to find as much common ground as can be found.”Read MoreAt least two members publicly accused their three colleagues of blindsiding them with the decision to return, with Rep. Donna Howard replying to the statement on Twitter, “This could have been shared with Caucus members beforehand.”Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos went further, tweeting that, “we were literally on caucus calls for 2 hours this morning and none of the defecting Democrats mentioned they were planning on helping the Republicans pass voter suppression bills. Guess what the other defecting Democrats have accomplished by going back—NOTHING!”The speaker of the House signed 52 civil arrest warrants last week for Democrats absent without excuse. The House sergeant-at-arms deputized law enforcement to find the members and compel their attendance on the floor. While warrants have been delivered to the members, no arrests have been made. Several lawsuits and temporary orders preventing their arrests have been filed over the past week and a half, but Democrats’ efforts have been repeatedly dashed by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court. The Texas House Democrats successfully killed election overhaul bills during the regular session when they walked out in the final hours and in the first special session when they left the state last month. The members fled to Washington, DC, then, in part to avoid arrest since Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction outside of the state to execute a civil warrant. They spent weeks trying to put pressure on congressional lawmakers to pass federal voting rights protections. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had vowed to call “special session after special session” until Democrats return and complete the agenda.The Texas Senate passed its version of the election overhaul bill, SB1, last week after a mostly symbolic 15-hour filibuster from Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado. It has since been effectively paralyzed, like all legislation coming out of the Senate, due to the lack of quorum in the House. SB1 includes broad new protection and access for partisan poll watchers, mail-in ballot restrictions, a drive-thru voting ban, restrictions to the early voting time frame, video surveillance and assistance restrictions. While the bill does add one extra required hour per day of early voting, it sets a specific time frame in which voting must be done — banning extended hours and 24-hour voting, a measure used during the pandemic in Harris County that local officials testified was especially popular with voters of color. SB1 also further restricts local election officials, for example, adding criminal penalties for sending unsolicited ballot request forms. Some Democratic amendments, like a cure process for mail-in ballot mistakes, were accepted in the final version of the bill.