Republicans were already rolling their eyes at the media hype surrounding the runaway Texas Democrats even before Vice President Kamala Harris compared them to Frederick Douglass and activists from the civil rights era.
At a Wednesday roundtable on voting rights, Ms. Harris extolled the “great sacrifice” of the nearly 60 state legislators who flew via private jet Monday to Washington to deny a quorum on a Republican-backed elections law.
“They took bold, courageous action in line with the legacy of everyone from Frederick Douglass, who’s over my right shoulder, when he fought for the right of Black men to vote in America to the legacy that includes all those women who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for women’s right to vote, to all of those folks who shed their blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to make sure that we would in 1965 pass the Voting Rights Act,” Ms. Harris said.
That was then. “Now we have in 2021 the Texas Legislature, many of them traveling to Washington, D.C., at great sacrifice, both personally and political, to stand up for Americans’ right to vote unencumbered,” she said.
It was too much for Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, who quickly sought to puncture the Texas Democrats’ pretensions to civil rights greatness.
“It’s actually pretty ridiculous,” Mr. Cruz said on Fox News. “Last I checked, the heroic civil rights protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were not on a private chartered jet. They didn’t have a case of Miller Lite next to them.”
The exchange encapsulated the public relations challenge for the wayward Democrats as they seek to leverage their dramatic departure to generate momentum for H.R. 1, the far-reaching voting legislation stuck in the Senate, without becoming national laughingstocks.
Not helping are Republicans, who accuse the legislators of playing to the cameras while abandoning their constitutionally mandated duties in Austin.
“Look, these are partisan Democrats playing a political stunt,” said Mr. Cruz. “They’re desperate for media attention; they’re getting it. The Biden administration wants to play politics, and so they’re doing that. But this is going to fail.”
The Democrats say they plan to stay until the end of the special session on Aug. 7 if necessary to thwart the elections bill backed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, but he has vowed to keep calling such sessions as often as needed to pass the measure.
Hence the need for H.R. 1, say the Texas legislators, which would prevent Mr. Abbott and other Republican governors from approving what Democrats describe as voter suppression legislation.
“Please don’t let our pleas fall on deaf ears in Congress,” state Rep. Vikki Goodwin said at Wednesday’s press conference at the Washington Plaza Hotel. “We have sacrificed a lot to be here. Many of us have left family, spouses, children, loved ones that we take care of. So this is a sacrifice. We’ve left our businesses. We are doing everything in our power to fight back.”
Critics say the Democrats are hardly roughing it, given their first-class travel accommodations financed by liberal fundraising committees, such as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People; their frequent television appearances; and their hobnobbing with the Washington elite.
Powered by the People has reportedly raised over $500,000 to cover hotel and other expenses incurred by the Texas Democrats. The Texas House Democratic Caucus footed the $100,000 tab for the two chartered planes.
“100 cents of the dollar donated goes to support them — whatever they need,” Mr. O’Rourke said in a video post on Facebook.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, noted that a photo of the Democrats on a charter bus included a case of Miller Lite, prompting him to accuse the legislators of putting a “beer-fueled party” over their constitutional duties.
“They will eventually go home after the cameras leave and after the press loses interest in this political stunt,” Mr. Cornyn said on the Senate floor. “It’s telling that these Democrats and this House of Representatives chose to race toward TV cameras in Washington rather than present their arguments in the Legislature.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the Texas legislators “decided to grab some beer, hop on a private plane and flee the state in what they are pretending is some great moral crusade.”
“In reality, they’ve just come here to Washington to snap selfies and bask in the limelight,” Mr. McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill, as reported by CNN.
Others have mocked the Democrats’ selfies, including a shot of a salad posted by state Rep. Gene Wu with the caption “my [first] meal as a fugitive.”
The Texas House on Tuesday ordered the sergeant-at-arms to bring back the Texas Democrats, using arrest warrants if necessary. Still, state authorities cannot take action until the legislators are back in the state.
“If these House Democrats continue pulling this stunt, they’re going to be arrested, and the Texas Constitution gives ample authority to arrest legislators who are trying to shut down the operation of government and to forcibly make them present on the House floor so the wheels of government can continue to turn,” Mr. Cruz said.
The exact number of Texas Democrats who decamped to Washington is unclear, but state Rep. Chris Turner said at least 57 of the 67 House members had instructed the clerk to lock their voting machines at their desks. Eight Senate Democrats have joined them.
Even so, the Texas Senate on Tuesday approved Senate Bill 1, the elections legislation, by a vote of 18-4 along party lines, keeping a quorum in the 31-seat chamber despite the absence of nine Senate Democrats.
Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said the legislation was “about making it easier to vote and harder to cheat” by combating ballot harvesting. Senate Democrats say it will suppress voter turnout by making it more difficult for disabled voters to cast ballots and banning drive-thru voting.
The bill also expands voting hours statewide, allows absentee voters to fix defects in their mail-in ballots, increases security by installing cameras at central county facilities and ensures that poll-watchers “can see and hear the activities that they’re already under current law legally entitled to observe.”