AUSTIN, Texas – Democratic and Republican senators dueled across the Texas-New Mexico line as each camp tried to score political points in the intensifying battle over congressional redistricting (search).
Republicans on Tuesday tried to coax 11 of the 12 Senate Democrats to return from Albuquerque, N.M., following their walkout Monday that forced the Senate to a standstill.
"No Texas problem has ever been solved in New Mexico," said Sen. Todd Staples, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus. Democrats remained firm: "We're not here on a vacation," said Democratic Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos in Albuquerque.
The walkout comes less than three months after a similar move by House Democrats, who broke a quorum in their chamber and killed a redistricting bill by fleeing to Ardmore, Okla.
Republicans are pressing for more seats in the state's 32-member delegation to the U.S. House. The Democrats hold a 17-15 advantage, which Republicans say does not reflect the state's increasingly Republican voting patterns.
Most Democrats want to keep the congressional map drawn by a three-judge federal panel in 2001. They say redistricting amounts to a power grab pushed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search).
As long as the Senate Democrats stay away, business in the chamber stops. It takes two-thirds of the Senate's 31 members to form a quorum and allow the chamber to take up business. Senate rules also require that two-thirds of the chamber support a bill before it can be taken up for debate.
"These members are good members," Republican Sen. Robert Duncan, said of the Senate Democrats. "I would prefer them to be back here working with us to try to resolve some of the issues that we have with regard to redistricting."
The latest walkout was triggered when Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (search) arranged the order of bills so that the two-thirds rule is not needed to bring up redistricting.
The Democratic senators left the state to stay out of reach of Texas law officers who might be sent to get them. They say they will return to Texas if Republican Gov. Rick Perry (search) ends the special legislative session or Dewhurst reinstates the so-called "two-thirds rule" in the Senate.
"When either of these two requests are granted, we will be on the first flight home," said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
GOP-backed redistricting proposals could cause more than 1.4 million minorities in Texas to lose effective representation in Congress, Van de Putte said.
"There's nothing fair about a partisan redistricting effort that turns a deaf ear to the overwhelming majority of Texans and turns it back on the minority opportunity," Van de Putte said.
But Republicans denied that minority representation would be hurt under their plans. Staples, chief architect of the Senate's Republican proposals, said the maps would protect minority voting rights.
In the House, many Democrats applauded their colleagues in the Senate.
"This is a grave time, I think, for the state," said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who sits on the House Redistricting Committee. "I feel personally very proud of the statesmanship and action that our senators have taken. It takes a lot to get 11 senators to get on an airplane and fly away. That's no small feat."