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Politics

Texas House Democrats Who Walked Out Are Pushing Congress For Voting Protections

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Texas now, where Republican efforts to pass more voting restrictions remain at a standstill. Last week, a group of Democrats from the Texas House fled the state to deny Republicans a quorum. They're here in D.C., and while they're here, they have been waging an uphill battle to get Congress to pass federal voter protections. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Gina Hinojosa is a state representative from Austin. She's one of the more than 50 lawmakers from Texas who have been holed up in a hotel in Washington for the past week. Hinojosa says there's a lot about this situation she didn't see coming. For one, she has school-age children, and she promised them she'd be around this summer.

GINA HINOJOSA: I've had to break those promises to my kids. I didn't anticipate this. I didn't expect to be here. I expected to be with my family, but this fight is that important.

LOPEZ: Texas Democrats are fighting on two fronts. For one, they're blocking legislation that would crack down on 24-hour polling locations, drive-through and curbside voting as well as create a bunch of new criminal penalties related to voting. And, two, they're pushing lawmakers in Washington to pass laws that would make it harder for states to limit access to the ballot. Hinojosa says pushing for change in D.C. might actually be easier than stopping a bill in Texas.

HINOJOSA: Here in Washington, we're fighting on a front where we can win. In Texas, we don't have the votes. Republicans aren't willing to work in a bipartisan fashion. The whole premise of their bill is false. It's based on the big lie.

LOPEZ: But in Washington, she says, Democrats control the White House and Congress. Republicans back in Texas say this entire plan is a waste of everyone's time. Republican state Senator Larry Taylor said in a recent press conference that he thinks it's a terrible idea for Democrats to spend their time asking for Congress to insert itself in this fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY TAYLOR: This is a tragedy. And it's a tragedy for the people of Texas, and it's an affront to people of Texas that people from Texas would go to D.C. and ask them to bring D.C. to Texas. How many of you think what's going on in D.C. works versus what we do here in Texas?

LOPEZ: Legislation in D.C., though, remains at a standstill, too. Republicans have successfully blocked a key Democratic voting bill, and Democrats aren't in agreement about changes to the Senate filibuster. Texas state Representative Alex Dominguez says it's still significant, though, that they've been able to meet with the vice president and Senate leadership.

ALEX DOMINGUEZ: So I think in the few days that we've already been here, we've made a substantial impact to drive the attention and, in many ways, the conversation at the national level squarely focused on voter rights and the types of bills, such as the one that Texas is facing, that would suppress or frustrate the freedom to vote.

LOPEZ: Another obstacle - a growing number of lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus. They're all vaccinated, and there's been no severe illnesses. But it has put a dent in their ability to meet with folks on the Hill. A lot of that has moved online. There's also a time crunch. Lawmakers plan on waiting out the current legislative session, which ends in a few weeks. After that, Dominguez says it's unclear what they will do.

DOMINGUEZ: And I believe that we are willing to stay as long as necessary. However, finances and also missing our family, our jobs are certainly important considerations for us.

LOPEZ: Texas Governor Greg Abbott has all but promised to call for yet another special session as soon as this one ends. He says voting legislation will again be on the agenda.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S "OBVS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.