Texas Dems amp up voting rights pressure with D.C. blitz

Texas Dems amp up voting rights pressure with D.C. blitz

Texas Democrats who killed a Republican elections bill with a dramatic state legislative walkout last month are heading to Washington this week to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and pressure lawmakers on voting rights — part of a week of action that culminates in an Austin rally hosted by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

The push comes with Democrats’ expansive federal voting rights legislation on life support after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he’ll vote against it. Texas Democrats had previously called on their counterparts in Washington to pass the bill as a means of pushing back against restrictive voting laws being passed in many states. Manchin and other Senate Democrats have also voiced opposition to changing the Senate filibuster rules, which would be an obstacle for other voting rights bills.

The Texas legislators are expected to be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for meetings with lawmakers from both chambers. It isn’t clear if that group of lawmakers will include Manchin or Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), another senator opposed to changing the filibuster. A person familiar with the Texas Democrats’ plans said neither senator was on the schedule as of Sunday, but they were trying to set up meetings. Manchin and Sinema’s offices did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The Democratic state lawmakers are set to hold meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the “For the People Act” and other elections-related legislation; and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. They’re also slated to meet with staffers for Texas’ two Republican senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.

“I think it is important for senators to hear real world stories that are happening in states like Texas,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the Texas Democrats making the trip to Washington. “The discrimination we’re talking about is not accidental discrimination. We’re talking about purposeful and intentional discrimination.”

The group will also meet on Wednesday with Harris, who was recently named the administration’s point person on voting rights by President Joe Biden.

Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign rally on October 17, 2019 in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Meanwhile, O’Rourke — who narrowly lost a 2018 Senate run to Cruz before making a short-lived 2020 presidential run — is planning to host a rally focused on voting rights on Sunday in Austin, the state’s capital.

O’Rourke said in an interview that he wants “every senator up there to meet this moment.” And he said that while he was thankful that Biden spoke out against the Republican state legislation that Texas Democrats blocked last month, he wants to see the president “do more” in the push for Democratic voting rights bills.

“You need the most powerful man on the planet,” O’Rourke said. “He uniquely can call our attention and demand our focus on the most important challenge facing us, and then call us to action.”

O’Rourke also addressed a possible run for governor of Texas next year. “We’re going to see this through,” he said. “After we do that, I’m going to think through what it is I can do to serve here. And that might be running for office, and it might be supporting others who run for office.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised a vote on the “For the People Act” during the last week of the month, despite the opposition from Manchin and the additional obstacle of the filibuster. Manchin’s primary public complaint with the sweeping package, which would remake American election, campaign finance and ethics law, is that it doesn’t have bipartisan support.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

The West Virginia Democrat has instead pushed for Congress to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, teaming up with a Republican colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to push that bill.

This piece of legislation would require that certain states or jurisdictions with a history of distrimination have their election changes “pre-cleared” by either the Department of Justice or a D.C. federal court before they can go into effect. The policy was in effect for decades under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in 2013.

That legislation also faces an uphill climb in the Senate despite Murkowki’s support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has come out against that bill as well, calling it unnecessary, and it is unlikely to garner a filibuster-proof majority.

The bill has yet to be introduced in the House. In a “dear colleagues” letter last week, Pelosi said this bill would not be ready until the fall. Democrats working on the bill have said they’re building up an evidentiary record to defend it from an inevitable court challenge, should it become law.

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