On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott called a second special session as many of the state’s Democratic lawmakers continued to sojourn in Washington, D.C. Last week, news broke that two of those legislators reportedly went on vacation in Portugal, attracting widespread criticism.
Abbott’s second called session, which started at noon on Saturday, comes amid spiking tensions between the state’s GOP and Democrats. Republican lawmakers are demanding their liberal colleagues return to work, while Democrats insist their Washington trip is necessary to protect voting rights.
As of now, it's unclear when Texas Democrats will return, but in the meantime, Abbott may be looking to change some key legislative rules.
In a Thursday statement, Abbott said the Texas Legislature has an obligation to “finish the work that was started.”
"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,” he said. “Passing these Special Session agenda items will chart a course towards a stronger and brighter future for the Lone Star State."
Over the coming days, lawmakers will consider 17 agenda items that echo those set for the first called session, such as GOP-backed elections and “bail reform” bills. Another would ban transgender children from participating on student sports teams that match their gender identity.
There’s also a new, notable item. Titled “state Legislature,” Abbott defines it as “legislation relating to legislative quorum requirements.”
As of now, each chamber requires two-thirds of its members to be present in order to conduct business. For the 150-member lower chamber, of which there are 67 Democrats, that means 100 legislators must show.
In a letter to Abbott last month, though, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for a change to quorum requirements in response to the Democrats’ trip to Washington.
“Texans expect their legislature to work and not be held hostage by a few legislators who are exploiting the quorum requirement,” he wrote in the letter. “The majority of other state legislatures require a simple majority plus one. For that reason, I am respectfully requesting that you add to the call a change the quorum requirement to a majority through a constitutional amendment.”
This isn’t the first time Patrick has called for a change in rules to benefit the majority, according to The Texan. Earlier this year, the Senate lowered the requirement of a supermajority to 18, making it easier for Republicans to pass legislation.
#ICYMI: I've asked Gov. @GregAbbott_TX to add changing the quorum requirement to the call. Should be simple majority, like it is in most states to stop outrageous behavior by Dems. I’m confident voters will support the #SimpleMajority.#txlege #SpecialSession pic.twitter.com/qLBatkefn2— Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) July 15, 2021
If the GOP leadership really wants to redefine quorum rules, then that would mean updating the Texas Constitution, said David Rausch, a political science professor at West Texas A&M University. And ultimately, regular Texans would have to approve it at the ballot box.
“That, I’m sure, will be hotly debated — and I’m being very sarcastic here — hotly debated among the public. ‘What are we voting on again? Why are we doing this?’” Rausch said, laughing.
Changing quorum requirements could be difficult. In order to reach a statewide vote in the first place, two-thirds of lawmakers in the state's House and Senate would have to support the amendment. That could be tough to achieve, as a number of Democrats in each chamber would have to support the move.
“If [Abbott] truly cared about stopping the spread of COVID, he wouldn’t have signed an executive order making it impossible to do just that." – Raven Hollins, advisor for Texas Right to Vote
On top of quorum-bending, Abbott’s agenda includes a “must-have” item pertaining to 2022 primary election dates, such as filing periods, Rausch said.
“Because otherwise, you’d be filing for a district, and you don’t know what district, because they haven’t done redistricting yet,” he said.
Meanwhile, Texas Democrats have slammed Abbott’s choice of legislative priorities.
“When Greg Abbott called for a special session of the Texas Legislature, he called for bills to take away our votes, harm trans children, and re-write Texas history - not end the pandemic. Since then, 610 Texans have died of COVID,” the liberal Boot Texas Republicans PAC said in a tweet on Thursday.
The Democratic-led group Texas Right to Vote also issued a statement, accusing Abbott of failing to fix the power grid or meaningfully address the pandemic. Advisor Raven Hollins noted the special session announcement comes on the heels of a sweeping executive order that prevents public institutions from enforcing vaccine or mask mandates.
When Greg Abbott called for a special session of the Texas legislature, he called for bills to take away our votes, harm trans children, and re-write Texas history - not end the pandemic.— Boot Texas Republicans (@BootTexasGOP) August 5, 2021
Since then, 610 Texans have died of COVID.
“If [Abbott] truly cared about stopping the spread of COVID, he wouldn’t have signed an executive order making it impossible to do just that,” Hollins said.
Prior to Abbott's announcement, the Texas House Democratic Caucus declared that on Friday morning in Washington, they would host a press conference to celebrate their “victory in killing the Texas Republicans’ anti-voter measures.”
Eventually, though, the Democrats will have to come home. Running out of funding is one thing, but Rausch said their PR is also “weakening,” thanks in part to the Portugal scandal. “That’s not a good thing,” he said. “Optically, that’s a bad thing.”