Texas Dem Senators Return to Cheers, But Empty Chamber

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Ten Senate Democrats who fled the state to thwart congressional redistricting (search) by Republicans returned to the Capitol to a thunder of cheers and applause Monday as another special legislative session convened.

The presence of Sen. John Whitmire (search) of Houston, who defected from a group of quorum-busting Democrats holed up in Albuquerque, N.M., gave Republicans the quorum (search) they needed to conduct Senate business.

Ten fellow Democrats waited to enter the Senate chamber until they quorum, or two-thirds, was present. But Whitmire quickly asked that the Senate adjourn until Tuesday, and Republican lawmakers exited before the Democrats showed up.

When they arrived, a packed Senate gallery erupted with loud, long cheers of approval. The Democrats raised their joined hands in a circle on the Senate floor.

"Thank you Texas!" Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, shouted to the crowd.

Van de Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, led 11 Senate Democrats during their more than six-week stay in New Mexico.

"It's been six weeks since Senate Democrats took a stand based on principle, based on voting rights, based on our belief that only in the rule of law can there be true liberty," she said.

The Democrats pledged to keep battling redistricting -- in the Senate and in court. They said the Republicans are trying to shut off the representation of rural and minority Texans in Congress.

"This fight is long from over. We have just begun the fight," said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst presides over the Senate and said he was glad all the lawmakers were back.

"We're here and finally we've got a quorum. The Democrats have shown up. We can do the business that we're all elected to do," Dewhurst said.

Earlier, when spectators in the gallery booed and hissed as the Republican senators suddenly adjourned, Dewhurst pounded his gavel a few times but before long he left his front podium.

"If they were so eager for us to come back to work, where are they?" Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, said later, to laughs from the crowd.

The Democrats accused their opponents of turning off their microphone, preventing the audience from hearing all their remarks. Republican Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, who turned off the microphone, said the Senate floor has never before been used for a political rally and no meeting was scheduled that would require a loud speaker.

The new session is the latest round in a bitter fight over the composition of Texas' delegation to the U.S. Capitol. Currently, Democrats have a 17-15 majority in Texas' congressional delegation.

Republicans want more seats in the delegation and say they deserve it because of the state's GOP voting trends over the past few years.

On Monday, the Senate Republicans unveiled a new congressional redistricting map. The Senate sponsor, Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, said the map reflects the composition of the Texas Senate and estimated it could give Republicans 19 or 20 seats.

Across the Capitol rotunda, in a hastily called hearing, the House Redistricting Committee voted 10-5 in favor of the same redistricting map passed during the first special session. During that session, senators unilaterally rejected the House version of the map and designed one of their own.

Staples said differences between the two chambers' proposed maps would still have to be worked out, including a West Texas dispute over whether Midland and Lubbock will be placed in the same congressional district.

States normally redraw districts once a decade following the U.S. Census (search). But when the Texas Legislature couldn't agree on a plan, a federal court implemented its own for Texas in 2001.

Efforts to pass a new redistricting plan have failed three times this year in Texas.

During the regular legislative session House Democrats blocked redistricting in May with a quorum bust when 51 lawmakers traveled to Ardmore, Okla.

In the first special session, Senate Democrats had the votes to prevent a debate and vote on redistricting because the order of bills was arranged so that a two-thirds vote of the chamber was needed to bring the bill.

In the second session, no such requirement was in place. So the Democrats fled to New Mexico to block a quorum and where they would be out of reach of Texas law officers sent to find them.