AUSTIN, Texas – Almost all of the Democratic members of the state House failed to show up Monday morning, preventing the GOP-dominated body from convening because of a lack of a quorum.
GOP officials had earlier threatened to send police after the missing Democrats. The would-be quorum-busters planned to leave the state to avoid being located by the Department of Public Safety or Texas Rangers (search), who could detain them and forcibly return them to the House floor, a source said.
In the first quorum-breaking in the state in more than 20 years, letters from 53 of the House's 62 Democrats informed the leadership they would be absent.
"I do not know where they are," said Tamara Bell, chief of staff for House Democratic Caucus Chairman Jim Dunnam.
The walkout coincided with the scheduled debate for a congressional redistricting bill (search). Because of a deadline looming later this week, it also threatens pending major legislation backed by Republicans, who are in control for the first time since Reconstruction.
Partisan tension has been building all legislative session. Republicans and Democrats have clashed over a no-new-taxes budget, sweeping lawsuit limitation legislation and a push by the GOP leadership to redraw congressional voting lines to favor Republicans.
The Texas House cannot convene without at least 100 of the 150 members present. The body has 88 Republicans and 62 Democrats.
It was immediately unclear why the House's nine other Democrats did not participate in the walkout, but many of those nine are aligned with GOP House Speaker Tom Craddick (search).
Craddick had already alerted the Texas Department of Public Safety about the threat of a Democratic walkout.
"If they bust the quorum he [Craddick] is going to put a call on the House. That means they lock the House down. Everybody's got to stay inside. They send the DPS out to look for these guys," said Craddick spokesman Bob Richter.
Democratic House members prepared for a trip Sunday night, packing clothes to allow them to stay away for four days, a legislative source told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
"DPS or the Rangers can't exactly come get us if we are outside of Texas," said one legislator.
The plan, if successful, would derail and likely kill major pending bills that have been termed a priority by Republicans, who took control of the House last November for the first time since Reconstruction.
The bills include measures on state government reorganization and school finances.
Those and other Republican-promoted measures must pass out of the House and be sent to the Senate by Thursday or risk dying.
Craddick's spokesman warned that if the Democrats follow through with their plan a special legislative session would have to be held immediately after the regular session ends June 2. Richter said Craddick was speaking withGOP Gov. Rick Perry (search), who would have to call a special session.
Twenty-four years ago this month, a group of 12 Texas state senators defied then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby by refusing to show up at the Capitol. The "Killer Bees," as they came to be known, hid out in an Austin apartment while state troopers, Texas Rangers and legislative sergeants-at-arms unsuccessfully combed the state for them.
Carlos Truan, one of the original Senate "Killer Bees," said such drastic tactics aren't for the faint of heart.
"They'd better be prepared to pay the political consequences for their actions, because there will be a hell of a price to pay," said Truan, who no longer serves in the Senate. "Breaking a quorum is a very, very major thing."