AUSTIN, Texas – A state Senate Democrat has left his 10 colleagues in their self-imposed exile in New Mexico and returned to Texas, a move that could give Republicans the quorum they need to again push a congressional redistricting plan.
Sen. John Whitmire (search), a Houston Democrat, said he isn't abandoning the redistricting fight that has occupied two special legislative sessions. But he said he'll wage the battle in Texas and try to fix political rifts.
"I am concerned about what this will do to the state Senate. The Senate has suffered greatly from this division. We can repair that," said Whitmire, the longest-serving member of the chamber.
The remaining Democrats, who fled to Albuquerque, N.M., on July 28 to block voting on a plan that increased the GOP delegation to Washington, said they will now weigh all their options and noted they still have a federal court case pending.
But having one lawmaker break away and return to Texas means their so-far successful quorum bust could dissipate should Republican Gov. Rick Perry (search) decide to call another special session on redistricting.
Whitmire said remaining in New Mexico was counterproductive. "Redistricting (search) is very important but there are also many other important issues such as criminal justice, school finance and property tax reform," he said Tuesday in Houston.
Although the second special session ended Aug. 26, the Democrats have stayed in New Mexico for fear that they would be arrested and hauled back to the Capitol in case Perry calls another session. Senate rules allow for the arrest of members who intentionally thwart a quorum.
Perry would not say Tuesday how he would respond to Whitmire's return. "I will allow you all in the media and the public to know at the appropriate time when I decide, if I decide," Perry said.
In New Mexico, Whitmire's fellow Democrats expressed deep disappointment. "He fled in the middle of the night. Call it what you want it to be, he did a good Houdini act," said Sen. Mario Gallegos, a Houston Democrat.
Democrats have a 17-15 majority in the Texas delegation to Washington and have said the current map shouldn't be changed. They argue that proposals before the GOP-dominated Legislature this year would have hurt minority representation.
Efforts to address redistricting have failed three times this year. During the regular legislative session, the bill failed when more than 50 Democratic House members blocked a quorum by fleeing to Oklahoma. Then the senators fled during the second special session.
Whitmire secretly spent the Labor Day in Houston. He returned to Albuquerque, briefly Tuesday to meet with the other 10 Democratic senators.
"After being in my district for five days, I have concluded my constituents are opposed to redistricting, but they also believe the fight should be on the Senate floor," Whitmire said.
The absent 11 Democrats prevented the 31-member Texas Senate from having enough lawmakers present to vote on a bill. Two-thirds of the chamber must be there and one defection among the exiled Democrats would give the Senate its quorum.