(NBC News) - The Texas House could pass voting restrictions within days after Democrats' efforts to stave off the Republican-backed changes fell apart last week.
A state House committee will hear public testimony on one of GOP-led election bills, Senate Bill 1, on Monday morning, business that was made possible by three Houston-area Democrats who broke ranks with much of the rest of their caucus and returned to work at the Capitol on Thursday.
Their return restored a quorum for the first time since more than 50 House Democrats fled to Washington, D.C., last month, according to House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican. The Senate passed SB 1 on Aug. 12, but the House had been unable to take up any legislation because chamber rules require that two-thirds of members be present to conduct business. Legislators now have less than two weeks to pass the bill before the special session expires Sept. 5. If they do not, Republicans would be forced to reintroduce the bill in another session and repeat the public hearings.
The bill's advancement is a blow to Democrats, who have spent months trying to delay or block passage of voting restrictions despite not having the votes to kill the legislation outright. The coordinated escape from Austin left Texas Republicans furious, creating wanted posters and threatening to have missing members arrested. When the first special legislative session called in part to pass the election bill expired, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott immediately called another. Democrats, meanwhile, spent nearly a month in Washington advocating for federal voting legislation that would kneecap many of the changes Republicans have proposed.
While previous public hearings on proposed election legislation have drawn hundreds of people to the state Capitol, the surge in Covid infections ravaging Texas has complicated planning for organizers and voting rights advocates who seek to fight it.
The Texas House does not have a mask mandate, and House members who have tested positive for Covid-19 have been voting in person from a quarantine chamber just off the floor.
Common Cause Texas is hosting what it calls a "honk! for voting rights" protest, encouraging cars to circle the Capitol on Monday morning, hoping for a noisy show of dissent with social distancing baked in.
SB 1 is nearly identical to the legislation the Senate passed last month. If it is enacted, it would restrict mail-in voting, eliminate some early voting options, add criminal penalties for voting law violations and empower partisan poll watchers. House members have proposed their own, slightly different version of the legislation, known as House Bill 3.
James Slattery, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the resurgent pandemic underscores problems voting rights advocates have with the legislation. The bill would ban certain early voting options, such as drive-thru voting, that Harris County embraced last year. Harris County, of which Houston is the county seat, is the most populous county in the state. Local officials said the drive-thru voting option allows people to vote safely when congregating at the polls is a major health risk.
"Clearly Covid is not gone," Slattery said. "The situation is so bad here that not even the governor of the state of Texas can protect himself. There was never a good time to get rid of drive-thru and extended-hours voting, but it is especially egregious now to ban counties from doing these things to keep their voters safe."
A spokesman for Abbott said Tuesday that he had tested positive for Covid. Abbott, who is fully vaccinated, has since announced that he is testing negative.
While the House appears to be getting back to business as usual, some Democrats argue that a quorum was not actually restored Thursday, despite Phelan's pronouncement.
"We are disappointed that a few Democrats chose to return to the floor. We feel betrayed and heartbroken, but our resolve is strong and this fight is not over," dozens of Texas Democrats said in a joint statement. "We know what we are dealing with; Republicans will lie about the number of legislators present at the Capitol to establish quorum, keep Texans in the dark, and bend the rules to get their way."
One of the statement's signers, Democratic Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, said Friday that members would take the weekend to strategize how to continue to fight the legislation. Some Democrats are urging their peers to stay off the House floor in hope of denying a quorum again.
Martinez Fischer added that some Democrats may return to Washington to lobby for HR 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require some states to seek federal approval before they change their voting laws. A vote on the revised bill is expected this week in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House. Most Republican lawmakers have opposed any type of federal voting legislation, however, and the bill faces long odds and probably a filibuster in the closely divided Senate.
"We're going to continue to fight voter suppression, and we're going to continue to hold the line," Martinez Fischer said. "We recognize we have a role to play in the national narrative."
Republicans, who had had arrest warrants issued for the missing Democrats to try to restore a quorum, welcomed the defecting members back. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat who had surgery and missed his party’s headline-making trip to Washington, gave a prayer at the start of Thursday's session.
"We pray today and pray for everyone here and all the officials who are doing what they believe is the right thing and that God continue to give them a sense of what the right thing is," he said.
"Mr. Coleman, we missed you. We missed you," Phelan said.