AUSTIN, Texas – Democratic state lawmakers fled Texas on Monday for the second time in three months to thwart a Republican drive to redraw the state's congressional districts.
Eleven of the 12 Democrats in the state Senate left for Albuquerque, N.M., as a first special session called by the governor to address redistricting (search) drew to a close and he called a second special session, which began Monday afternoon. The second session could last up to 30 days.
"We're availing ourselves of a tool given to us by our Texas Constitution to break a quorum," Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (search) said at a hotel in Albuquerque, where the 11 Democrats met with reporters. "It's not about Democrats, it's about democracy."
"This is not an action that we take lightly. There are not many issues that would rise to this kind of action," said Leticia Van de Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Van de Putte said more than 1.4 million minorities in her state would lose effective congressional representation if the Republicans redistrict according to their wishes.
New Mexico state police guarded the hotel, partly out of concern that "bounty hunters" might show up to whisk the lawmakers away.
"There was some concern that our [Republican] leaders would attempt to use off-duty officers, security guards, bounty hunters" to forcibly bring the lawmakers back to Texas, said Sen. John Whitmire.
Asked how long the group might stay in New Mexico, Sen. Judith Zaffirini (search) said: "Thirty days. More if it's necessary."
In May, during the regular spring session, the Republicans tried to push redistricting toward a vote in the GOP-controlled state House. But 51 Democrats in that chamber fled across the state line to Oklahoma to block a quorum, killing the bill.
On Monday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst began the new session by ordering the 11 who left back to the chamber.
"I'm asking our Senate Democrats to come back and to work with us," Dewhurst said. "I would say that I'm very, very disappointed."
He said he expects the Senate will pass a redistricting plan. "If I read the tea leaves correctly, we will pass a fair redistricting plan now or later," Dewhurst said.
Dewhurst said he would enlist the Senate sergeant-at-arms and possibly off-duty police officers to retrieve the 11 lawmakers, but acknowledged that Texas authorities likely could not cross state lines.
If the senators stay in Albuquerque, or even out of the Capitol, business in the chamber will shut down. It takes two-thirds of the Senate's 31 members to form a quorum and allow the chamber to take up business.
When the House Democrats fled to Oklahoma, Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick ordered state troopers to find them and bring them back to Austin. The office of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay also became involved, calling the Federal Aviation Administration to try to locate the plane of one of the Democrats.
The authority of the state Department of Public Safety to pursue and arrest the lawmakers in Texas remains in question.
A lawyer for a House member who sued over the department's involvement in the earlier flight says troopers can't arrest the missing lawmakers. The state attorney general's office says they can, but Dewhurst said he doubts the department will even be called this time.
Republicans are pressing for more seats in the state's 32-member delegation to the U.S. House. The Democrats currently hold a 17-15 advantage, which Republicans say does not reflect the state's increasingly Republican voting patterns.
Most Democrats want to keep the existing congressional map drawn by a three-judge federal panel in 2001. They say redistricting amounts to a power grab pushed by DeLay, a Republican.
The Senate and House adjourned their special session Monday afternoon. Shortly afterward, Gov. Rick Perry called a new one.
Zaffirini said the senators boarded two private flights arranged by two Senate Democrats, but said most did not know where they were headed.
Perry said he was disappointed in Monday's developments. "Today a minority of members in the state Senate prevented the Senate from finishing important work," he said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, welcomed the Texas lawmakers.
"New Mexico has a long history of helping people on the run -- and should these legislators decide to stay awhile, I will be proud to have them," Richardson said.
During the first special session, Senate Democrats were able to block a redistricting bill that could have given Republicans an additional seven seats. Eleven Democrats and one Republican stood firm against the bill.
Senate rules require that two-thirds of the chamber must agree before a bill can be taken up for debate. Dewhurst has said he would do away with that rule during the second session so that only a simple majority would be needed.