The visuals were powerful. Two chartered planes taking off from Texas -- and landing in the nation's capital -- filled with Democratic legislators fleeing a Republican attempt to pass one of the nation's most stringent voting bills.
But the political reality for those Democrats -- and for voting rights advocates around the country -- is significantly grimmer: There is almost no way for this strategy to succeed.
What Democrats did in leaving the state is rob Republicans in the Texas legislature of a quorum -- a term signifying when there are enough members present for the legislative body to do its business.
Texas Republicans pledged to do everything they could to find a legislative workaround for the lack of a quorum, but it's possible that if Texas Democrats stay in DC that the clock will run out on the special session Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called to pass this election bill (and a few other measures).
That would mean that that these Texas Democrats would spend almost a month away from home -- and the state. (If they returned to Texas, Abbott could have them arrested and forced back to the state House.) Which is a long time!
But let's say they do it. Stay away from Texas until the special session expires. What happens next? Abbott simply calls another special session.
Here's what the governor told a local TV station Monday night:
"I can and I will continue to call a special session after special session after special session all the way up until election next year. And so if these people want to be hanging out wherever they're hanging out on this taxpayer-paid junket, they're going to have to be prepared to do it for well over a year. As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done."
Which, well, yes. Abbott has the power to just keep calling special sessions for the foreseeable future. Which would force the Texas House members who fled the state on Monday to stay away from the state for, potentially, months. Which is simply not practical. You can't stay away forever, and Republicans are well-positioned -- they control the governorship as well as both state legislative chambers -- to wait Democrats out.
Texas (and national) Democrats know that, of course. What their flight to Washington on Monday is really about is a) drawing national attention to the voting bill in the state b) buying themselves some time to strategize and c) giving themselves the only sort of leverage they can have in a state legislature totally dominated by the opposing party.
The best-case scenario for Texas Democrats currently holed up in Washington is that, sometime in the next week or two, they enter into negotiations with Republican leaders in the state House about what -- in terms of legislative concessions -- might bring them back to the state to vote. If that happens (and much would depend on Republicans' willingness to placate Democrats on at least some issues in this voting bill), Texas Democrats can declare victory and likely count all of the fundraising dollars they raised from being in the national spotlight.
The worst-case scenario is that Republicans refuse to budge on their voting bill and Abbott makes good with his threat to just keep calling special sessions, forcing Democrats to stay out of the state for a looooong time.
Either way, this ends the same: The bulk of the voting bill gets passed. In the former scenario, Democrats may at least be able to claim that their flight accomplished something -- watering down some of the most restrictive parts of the bill. In the latter case, they would just be the surefire losers in a war of attrition that Abbott and his Republican allies in the state legislature are very well-positioned to win.
All of which means that the best outcome for Democrats is a moral victory. Which isn't the same thing as an actual victory.
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