Democratic Texas lawmakers left the state capital and headed for Washington in a dramatic effort to halt Republican efforts to pass new voting laws.
They also sought to pile pressure on members of Congress to enact wide-ranging federal election legislation.
By leaving the state, the Texas Democrats denied Republicans the two-thirds quorum required to proceed with a vote on a bill to limit ballot access. Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor, has threatened to arrest the fleeing Democrats on their return.
Karine Jean-Pierre, a White House spokesperson, said President Joe Biden “applauds [the] courage” of the Texas legislators. Jean-Pierre said Kamala Harris, vice-president, would meet with the state lawmakers “sometime this week”.
The showdown came as Biden gave a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday to drum up public support against what the White House has described as an “onslaught of voter suppression laws” in Republican states.
Republican-controlled state legislatures have pushed for tighter restrictions on voting in the wake of last year’s presidential election, which Donald Trump has falsely claimed was “stolen” from him. Republican lawmakers have pushed for tougher rules on when and how to vote, including a rollback of early voting provisions put in place amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of mid-May, lawmakers had enacted at least 22 bills to restrict voting in 14 states this year. At least 61 other draft laws in 18 states were being considered by state legislatures. The US justice department has sued the state of Georgia to block a law it passed limiting ballot access, which was condemned by companies including Coca-Cola and Delta.
The US Supreme Court earlier this month upheld two voting laws in Arizona that opponents said discriminated against racial minorities, in a major decision that could make it more difficult to bring legal challenges against state voting rules.
The decision came eight years after the court scrapped a “coverage formula” that required certain states to get federal sign-off before tightening voting laws. The formula was part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by then US president Lyndon Johnson at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Democratic legislators have called for the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act with a new law named after John Lewis, the civil rights icon who died last year aged 80. They have also put forward a separate bill to expand ballot access nationwide.
But neither bill is likely to make it through the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Senate filibuster rules require most legislation to receive the backing of 60 lawmakers in the 100-member upper chamber.
Lizzie Litzow, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said voters “believe in common sense election security reforms” and accused Democrats of “ignoring the will of the people by stoking false outrage over Republican efforts to make elections more secure”.
“The Democrats want to ban voter ID, something a vast majority of Pennsylvanians support, and force taxpayers to fund campaign ads, something a vast majority of Americans oppose,” she added, in reference to where Biden was giving his speech.
A national Monmouth University poll conducted last month found 71 per cent of Americans thought in-person early voting should be made easier. At the same time, four in five Americans said they supported laws requiring voters to show photo ID to cast a ballot.
Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman and longtime Biden supporter, said at the weekend the president “should endorse” the idea of an exemption to the filibuster for voting rights.
Clyburn told Politico the president could “pick up the phone and tell Joe Manchin, ‘Hey, we should do a carve out,’” referring to the West Virginia senator who has been a vocal critic of progressive calls to scrap the filibuster. Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema has also said she opposes getting rid of the convention.
Psaki told reporters on Monday that Biden remained opposed to eliminating the filibuster. “The filibuster is a legislative process tool . . . but determination about making changes will be made by members of the Senate, not by the president,” she said.