Analysis: Texas lawmakers have two contentious voting fights ahead — if they can stay in the same room

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, leads a prayer on the House floor on Aug. 19, 2021. Democratic lawmakers Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Lucio Walle returned to the House floor, giving their Republican members a quorum.

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Texas politicians have spent the summer fighting over voting legislation that pits Republican proposals of “election integrity” against Democratic resistance to suppression of voters, especially people of color and voters who are disabled.

The differences are about voting and elections, but also very much about race and how the state’s elected partisans view themselves and their opponents. Democrats in the Texas House decamped for Washington, D.C., in July to stop the legislation, but enough have trickled back into Austin for the Legislature to resume its work.

That voting bill is immediately ahead, but lawmakers now have the census data they need to draw new political maps, slicing and dicing the state into districts from which members of Congress, the Legislature and the State Board of Education will be elected next year. The current tensions over political, racial and ethnic, and geographic representation and engagement are just a warmup.

This summer of legislative discontent is also straining relationships and legislative norms — like the one that gives some committee chairmanships to Democrats in a Legislature with a clear Republican majority. One of the plums — the House speaker pro tem — was held by state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, a Democrat, until House Speaker Dade Phelan stripped him of it in retaliation for Moody’s participation in the quorum-busting decampment to Washington.

The Democrats left Austin in unison and are returning a few at a time, splintered by differences over strategy and tactics and somewhat disenchanted by the ineffectiveness of the effort. With the return of a quorum — assuming the quorum remains in place — the House has its wheels back and can start catching up to the Senate, where Democrats stayed at work to be rolled over by a Republican majority.

That leaves the Republicans in the majority of a battered institution, finishing one nasty political fight on the way to a bigger one.

This is the Texas Legislature, though, and there’s always another way to mess things up. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick interrupted the Democrats’ debacle on Thursday night with his unfounded declaration that Black Democrats should shoulder the blame for the spread of the coronavirus among unvaccinated Texans.

“The COVID is spreading, particularly — most of the numbers are with the unvaccinated — and Democrats like to blame Republicans on that,” Patrick said on Fox News.

“Well, the biggest group in most states are African Americans who have not been vaccinated. The last time I checked, over 90% of them vote for Democrats in their major cities and major counties,” he said. “So it’s up to the Democrats to get — just as it’s up to Republicans — to try to get as many people vaccinated. But we respect the fact that if people don’t want the vaccination, we’re not going to force it on them. That’s their individual right.

“But in terms of criticizing the Republicans for this? We’re encouraging people who want to take it to take it,” Patrick said. “But they’re doing nothing for the African American community that has a significant high number of unvaccinated people.”

Safe to say that his comments fed already amplified discord about race and politics in the Legislature. Patrick, who was trying to redirect a question about Democratic criticism of the COVID-19 responses of Republicans in charge of Texas government, was flat wrong about who is unvaccinated in Texas.

As a matter of fact, only 29% of Black Texans have been vaccinated, lower than the percentage of white and Hispanic Texans. But they aren’t the leaders of the unprotected: Black Texans only account for 14.9% of the state’s 12.9 million eligible but unvaccinated residents, while white Texans make up 43.9% and Hispanic Texans account for 38.1%.

Monday marks the House’s real return to work since the Democrats left Austin last month. If enough members continue to show up to do business, it might be because enough Democrats either thought they have accomplished what they set out to do, or that they just wore out after more than a month.

It might mean the Republicans offered some crumbs to those who agreed to return.

If there was any negotiation between the House’s Democrats and Republicans, it could show up in how the House works with the Senate — whether the hard lines of the Senate versions of bills are matched or moderated in the House. It could show up in the order in which legislation is considered, and whether the House moves quickly on bills with Democratic support or holds those until the Republican trophies have been passed.

This could be a legislative wipeout for the Democrats. Republicans have the majorities in both chambers, and a Republican governor waiting to sign off on their work. They don’t have to make concessions they don’t want to make, but what they do now will set the tone for the bigger battle ahead.

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