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What's Next For Texas Democrats After Fleeing The State Over Voting Restrictions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nowhere has the national fight over voting rights been brought more sharply into focus than Texas. Republicans there have twice this year proposed a number of controversial new voting restrictions - things like banning drive-through voting and making it harder to vote by mail. Also twice this year, Texas House Democrats have staged efforts to derail votes on these restrictions by walking out of the state Capitol. Well, yesterday, dozens of those Democratic lawmakers left Texas altogether and flew here to Washington. They include Texas state Representative James Talarico, who's on the line now.

Hey there, Mr. Talarico.

JAMES TALARICO: Hi. How are you?

KELLY: I am well. Thank you. So I'm curious how long you might be planning to stay in Washington. And I ask because the Texas Constitution holds that you could be arrested. You could be physically hauled back to the Capitol to provide a voting quorum if you're anywhere in Texas during this special legislative session. And the session runs till early August.

TALARICO: That's right. We're planning to be out of the state until August 7, when the special session is over. We probably won't be in Washington, D.C., the entire time, but we can't return to our beloved home state. And many of us left behind children and our elderly parents and our sick loved ones and our day jobs to do this because we believe our democracy is on the line.

KELLY: Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, says he will keep calling special sessions until the legislature does take up these voting bills. He says you and your Democratic colleagues may have to wait it out for more than a year or face arrest if you go back to Texas. How does that factor into your thinking?

TALARICO: Yeah, Governor Abbott's love for voter suppression knows no bounds. And, you know, he has pledged to bring us back continually until we pass his voter suppression bill. That's why we are here in Washington, D.C., because we are begging, pleading, imploring our federal counterparts to take immediate action to restore and safeguard voting rights across the country.

KELLY: Let me ask about the optics. Because depending on one's point of view, this could be seen as taking a brave stand, or it could be seen as fleeing your state. Why not stay? Why not try to negotiate a bipartisan path forward?

TALARICO: So I'm going to be very honest with you. I'm a Texas Democrat. We're a minority of a minority, right? We lose all the time on the floor of the Texas House. We lose votes on abortion and immigration and guns. And we brush ourselves off, and we get back to work the next day to fight the good fight and lose again. That's what we do as Texas Democrats. But this voter suppression bill is different. The Republicans in our state are trying to rig the rules of the game. And we have said over and over again, we can debate issues, but we will not debate democracy itself. That's why we use this rare legislative maneuver called quorum breaking to stop and kill this bill, because quorum breaking is really only reserved for the most egregious abuses of power.

KELLY: To your point that you just made, that you're a minority of a minority, Republicans are in the majority. If that means that some kind of voting rights bill is inevitable, it's going to pass, again, just to push you on, why not make it a bit more palatable, a bit less reprehensible from where you sit? I mean, because right now you have no say in what's happening there.

TALARICO: So it's a great question. And I should clarify that this process of Republicans trying to push through a voter suppression bill has been happening since the 2020 election. And former President Trump's big lie that the last election was stolen, that was really the kickoff of this entire saga. And we worked throughout the regular session all spring with our Republican colleagues to try to make the bill less dangerous, you know, less harmful to our constituencies, particularly Black and brown communities across the state of Texas. And we showed up in this special session to do the exact same. In fact, we had a 24-hour hearing where we offered amendment after amendment to make the bill less harmful, and our Republican colleagues rejected each and every one, leaving us no option but to leave.

And believe me, you know, many of us did not personally want to leave because it comes at a great cost personally for many of us. But we thought we had - we were left with no other option but to break quorum and kill this bill. And the last thing I'll add is our federal counterparts have majorities in both chambers as Democrats, and so we are begging them to take action, pass the For the People Act, pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to prevent something like this from becoming law.

KELLY: And we just have a few seconds left, but are you seeing any sign that your absence in Texas is giving you leverage, is leading Republicans to good-faith negotiations?

TALARICO: Absolutely. We are seeing not only that the debate is getting renewed spotlight in our home state, but we're seeing progress here in D.C., where federal lawmakers are making some movement toward passing one of these bills that could save our democracy, not just in Texas, but across the country.

KELLY: That is Democratic Texas state Representative James Talarico speaking to us from here in Washington.

Mr. Talarico, thank you.

TALARICO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.