On Thursday, Texas House Speaker Dede Phelan announced he is chartering a plane to be on standby in Washington to return Democratic legislators to the Texas Capitol, should they wish to go. Phelan also stripped El Paso Democrat Joe Moody of his leadership position in the House. The Texas Tribune reports the 59 House members and nine senators – all Democrats – remain in Washington after leaving Austin to prevent consideration of a controversial voting bill authored by Republicans.
Mark Jones is a political science professor at Rice University. He characterized Phelan’s chartered plane as “political theater” designed to bring attention to what Republicans believe is Democratic dereliction of duty by leaving Texas during the special legislative session. Jones doubts any Democrats will accept Phelan’s offer.
“Phelan can keep it there as long as he wants,” Jones said. “He has the money. At a certain point, though, it will become ridiculous to just be keeping it there.”
Jones says he expects the chartered plane to leave Washington within a week, with no Democrats on board.
The removal of Moody as speaker pro tem of the House is a symbolic action on Phelan’s part, Jones says. But Phelan has the power to do it since he appointed Moody in the first place.
“That’s one thing Phelan can do for Republicans, including Gov. Abbott, who are calling on him to remove the many Democrats [Phelan] appointed as committee chairs at the start of the session.”
Phelan can’t remove committee chairs during a legislative session, Jones says.
The speaker reached out to Democrats during the regular session, not only appointing them as committee chairs but working to pass some bills that Democrats offered, and blocking some conservative legislation Democrats opposed. But Phelan now faces pressure from Republicans who want Democrats punished for leaving during the special session.
“Now he finds himself with all but four of his Democratic allies in D.C., and the Republicans who remain in Texas upset with him for not doing a better job of managing the House,” Jones said.
On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has maintained a quorum, with the help of four Democratic members who did not leave the state.
Jones says it’s unclear what Democrats’ endgame might be. They don’t have the votes to derail the Republican voting bill they oppose, and they’re needed to complete other business, including the legislative budget and redistricting, which will be on tap this fall.
“[Republicans] could have passed a cleaner election integrity bill that wasn’t as extreme, back in the regular session,” Jones said. “But they chose to double down, and then Gov. Abbott vetoed the Legislature’s budget. So really, both sides have been playing to their base in a polarized way.”
Jones says compromise is possible when Abbott is expected to call a second special session in August. But right now, extreme polarization is keeping the sides apart and creating “a real mess.”