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VP Harris hails Texas Dems who quashed elections bill as ‘courageous leaders and American patriots’

After Cornyn accuses them of walking off the job on Texas’ SB7, Dems says it’s their job, and his, to oppose voter suppression and discrimination.
Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Texas state lawmakers at the White House on June 16, 2021, to promote federal voting rights legislation.(Todd J. Gillman / staff)

By Todd J. Gillman

WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris welcomed Texas lawmakers to the White House on Wednesday, celebrating a brash victory in a late night walkout that derailed one of the GOP’s most aggressive efforts to rewrite state-level election rules since Donald Trump’s defeat.

“You are courageous leaders and American patriots,” she told the group in the Roosevelt Room, just off the Oval Office.

Harris is the Biden administration’s point person on voting rights. Like Democratic leaders in Congress a day earlier, she held Texas up as an example of GOP ardor for voter suppression and the visiting legislators as paragons of resistance.

The Texans spent Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol, recounting the push from Gov. Greg Abbott and his allies to curb Sunday morning voting valued by Black churches, and explaining how Senate Bill 7 would have empowered judges to toss out an election without evidence of widespread fraud, a provision nicknamed the “Trump amendment” for the ex-president’s baseless claims the 2020 election was stolen.

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Democrats abandoned the Texas House chamber in the waning hours of the session last month, breaking quorum and killing SB7.

In the halls of Congress and at the White House, the Texans pleaded for federal legislation to nullify state-level voter suppression laws to make such extreme tactics unnecessary. Harris readily assured them that’s a top priority.

“We will do everything in our power as an administration to lift up the voices of those who seek to preserve the rights of the future. We’re not telling people how to vote. And frankly, this is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. This is an American issue,” Harris said, adding that SB7 “clearly has been written in a way that will make it difficult for people.”

State Reps. Gina Hinojosa of Austin and Senfronia Thompson of Houston flanked the vice president. In all, 16 state lawmakers met with Harris: a dozen from the Texas House and four senators.

On Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi also hailed the Texans as “American patriots.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others called them an “inspiration” in the fight to avert Jim Crow-type obstacles to ballot access.

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But their lobbying likely won’t be enough to get stalled voting rights legislation across the goal line in Congress.

Republicans are dug in against HR1, the For the People Act. Democrats have already pushed that through the House, to overhaul campaign finance rules and set national standards for voter access.

Republicans also oppose a separate proposal that would reinstate intense federal scrutiny of Texas and other states with a history of discrimination in elections.

Both bills face a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

“We have to get these bills passed,” said Houston Sen. Carol Alvarado, chair of the Democratic caucus in the Texas Senate. “We know it’s a priority for the administration.”

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Harris noted that in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court neutered the civil rights landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court tossed out the formula for determining which states had records egregious enough to justify “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department before being allowed to move a polling site or change even the most minor election rules.

“We have seen exactly what we feared when that case came down in 2013. Because that case was an opening of a door to allow states to … [enact] laws that are designed, in many cases quite intentionally, to make it difficult for people to vote,” Harris said. “What’s happening right now in Texas is, of course, a very clear and current example of that.”

She called on Congress to approve the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, to restore the pre-clearance process and ward off future attacks on ballot access.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, among others, has insisted that the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case was decided correctly, and that pre-clearance is no longer justified.

He mocked the Texas Democrats as they headed to Washington, tweeting Monday that “All they did is walk off their job.”

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The Texas Democrats took umbrage at that.

“We did not walk off our jobs,” Houston Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving Democrat in the Texas House, insisted outside the West Wing after the meeting with the vice president. “We walked out for… the benefit of the people that we represent. …That is our job, is to represent their interests.”

Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who hoped to challenge Cornyn fall but fell short in the primary, also pushed back.

“We’re doing our job of making certain that every Texan, every American, has a right to vote in this country, and it’s not being suppressed under some fake narrative, called voter integrity,” he said.

“Members of the Legislature used every tool in the box,” said Houston Sen. Carol Alvarado, who leads the party’s caucus in the Texas Senate. “We’re doing our job. We’d like him to do his job, and meet with his own constituents. I mean us.”

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Cornyn isn’t likely to budge but in any case, the state legislators did not request a meeting with him this week. A few did meet with his aides.

Filibuster and Manchin

Schumer will put HR1 to a vote next week, though it faces stiff opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. He also adamantly rejects suggestions from the left to scrap the filibuster, an arcane rule that both parties have used when they’re in the minority.

Two of the Texas Democrats met with Manchin aides on Tuesday. (Manchin himself met with a number of the Texans Wednesday night: Sens. Royce West and José Menendéz and Reps. Chris Turner, Nicole Collier, and Jessica Gonzalez, along with U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Al Green of Houston and Sylvia Garcia of Houston.)

“We’re not going to give up on him,” Thompson said.

Abbott has vowed to summon the Legislature back to Austin for a special session to resurrect SB7. He has also threatened to defund the legislative branch if they don’t comply. Rep. Rafael Anchía of Dallas, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, called that “a crass power grab to silence the vote of Texans.”

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A small group of reporters was brought in for Harris’ comments at the top of the meeting.

Afterward, the Texans spoke on the driveway outside the West Wing before posing for a group photo and selfies. Some posted video commentaries with the executive mansion as backdrop.

President Joe Biden was in Geneva meeting Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, so the White House was unusually devoid of staff and news media.

“We found a very receptive audience, very in tune to recognizing the challenges before us,” said Rep. Yvonne Davis of Dallas. “My ask is simple: we all should be very concerned and committed to preserving the right to vote for every citizen.”

Hinojosa said Harris’s “big focus was on the power of the coalition that we have built” in Austin between Black and Latino legislators. “When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t see the power. So to have the vice president recognize it as ‘Hey y’all, that’s something big and powerful, how’d you do it,’ it gives us something to think about.”

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The state House members who attended were Reps. Rafael Anchía, Jessica Gonzalez, Yvonne Davis and Victoria Neave of Dallas; Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, who leads the Texas Legislative Black Caucus; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, Gina Hinojosa of Austin; Ron Reynolds of Missouri City; Jarvis Johnson, Armando Walle and Senfronia Thompson of Houston; and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic caucus.

The state senators who joined Harris were Royce West of Dallas, Beverly Powell of Burleson, José Menéndez of San Antonio, and Carol Alvarado of Houston.

Washington correspondent Raga Justin contributed to this report.

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