AUSTIN, Texas – Fifty-one fugitive Democratic (search) lawmakers declared victory Thursday in their scheme to scuttle a GOP redistricting effort and returned to Texas (search) from self-imposed exile in Oklahoma (search).
The 51 Democrats who walked out in protest of the measure began their 270-mile trip to Austin late Thursday, their mission nearly accomplished. Forty-seven were aboard two charter buses; three others drove cars back and one flew.
"I'm pretty excited about it," Rep. Pete Gallego said just before the first bus crossed the state line. "People are really tired. They're ready to get back to Texas."
As the bus rolled across the wide bridge over the Red River, Gallego announced to cheers, "It is 11:16 and we are in the state of Texas."
About a dozen Denton County Democratic Party supporters met the lawmakers at the Texas Welcome Center.
"We wanted to welcome them back. I think they did what they had to do, the only thing they could do," said supporter Bill Hughen.
Legislators got off the buses to greet supporters, but the meeting was brief; a strong wind picked up and it started to rain, and lightning flickered in distance.
Meanwhile, the federal Department of Homeland Security said it was drawn into the four-day standoff when a Texas law officer indicated that a plane carrying Democrats had run into trouble and might have crashed.
The telephone call to Homeland Security was placed Monday, at a time Texas Republicans were desperately seeking the Democrats' whereabouts.
Fifty-one Democrats set up makeshift offices 270 miles from the capitol at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., in protest of the redistricting bill. On Thursday, they said their mission was accomplished.
"Now that we have been able to kill redistricting, we are able to go back and finish the business of this state," state Rep. Craig Eiland said in Ardmore, Okla.
Lawmakers posed in front of the Holiday Inn for a photo. About a dozen protesters stood nearby, chanting "Shame on you!" and booing, while a handful of supporters chanted "God bless you!"
After Thursday, according to the legislature's rules, the only measures the House can consider without a two-thirds vote will be Senate bills. The Senate redistricting plan appeared unlikely to pass.
"House redistricting dies with all the other House bills tonight," Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick said.
Earlier in the week, Craddick had ordered state troopers to find, arrest and bring the Democrats back to Austin. Most of them were discovered in Oklahoma, out of reach of Texas police.
The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that it received a call from a Texas law officer asking for help in finding a plane that was missing and had state representatives on board.
The statement described the call as "an urgent plea for assistance from a law enforcement agency trying to locate a missing, lost, or possibly crashed aircraft."
No Homeland Security Department aircraft were used in response, the statement said.
Craddick denied knowing anything about use of a federal agency in the search, saying the state Department of Public Safety handled the details.
State Rep. Pete Laney, who was on the plane that safely landed in Oklahoma, questioned why federal agents were called.
"I just think it's a strange use of assets," Laney said. "I'm curious as to why a federal agency would involve themselves to this extent in a state issue."
Tom Vinger, a Public Safety spokesman, declined to comment.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to say whether he believes it would be appropriate for Homeland Security to be used to round up Texas Democrats.
"This is a matter that is being addressed in the state of Texas," McClellan said.
For the fourth straight day Thursday, the chamber stood still. Oversized brown leather chairs were empty, the normally bustling gallery was quiet and Republican members unable to pass bills used the free time to talk to visitors and conduct meetings.
Important issues such as homeowners insurance reform and passing revenue generating bills to help a $9.9 billion budget shortfall can still be addressed through Senate legislation, amendments and other tools not affected by Thursday's deadline, Democrats say.
Eighteen days remain in the regular session.
"We feel like we will be able to accomplish everything except redistricting," Eiland said.
Democrats say Republicans, in control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction, have overreached this session by wanting to redraw voting lines set by a federal court two years ago. Elections have already been held using those districts. Normally, redistricting is done every 10 years based on population changes in the census.
The debate is now moot, GOP Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday.
"Quite frankly, this thing's over with as far as I'm concerned. We've got work to do," Perry said. "I hope they all have a safe trip back home."