By\u00a0Patrick Svitek\u00a0and\u00a0Cassandra Pollock\r\nTexas House Democrats had essentially moved in lockstep \u2014 fleeing for Washington, D.C., in July and staying there for weeks to prevent a quorum needed by Republicans to pass their priority elections bill during the first special session. The group of over 50 lawmakers maintained a united front in TV interviews and on social media, keeping their plans closely guarded.\r\nBut after lawmakers were called back for a second special session by Gov.\u00a0Greg Abbott, who was determined to pass the elections legislation, Democrats were faced with planning their next moves and the fractures emerged.\r\nOn July 31, in the final days of the first special session, Democrats who were camped out in the nation\u2019s capital met for over eight hours in a hotel conference room taking a number of votes on what they should do next, several members and staffers who were there told The Texas Tribune.\r\nMany of the members were ready to go home. By that point, they\u2019d been away from their districts and families for more than three weeks. Fifty-one percent of the group that voted was for continuing to stay out of Texas, while 49% supported continuing the quorum break back in their home state, according to one of their polls.\r\nIn another vote, 20% of Democrats voted for ending the quorum break and showing up on the House floor for the next legislative overtime round.\r\nIn virtually every scenario they voted on, a majority of the group agreed they should stay away from the Texas Capitol in the second special session that began Aug. 7 to again block the elections bill they had railed against as a form of voter suppression.\r\nCrucially, members disagreed about the significance of the votes they were taking. Some took the polls to mean they would all commit to doing the will of the majority \u2014 that they would continue to move together as a bloc, as they had for so many weeks. Others viewed it as merely a temperature check to get a better sense of the group\u2019s standing.\r\nThat misunderstanding later fueled a sense of betrayal by some of the Democrats as they watched, angry and befuddled, as their colleagues trickled back to the House over the next few weeks.\r\n\u201cI still don\u2019t know to this day why that happened, and I truly believe that the quorum break probably would still be going on had the majority\u2019s will actually been honored,\u201d said Rep.\u00a0Jasmine Crockett\u00a0of Dallas, who was a vocal advocate for remaining in Washington.\r\nThe dam broke on Aug. 23, as the largest group of Democrats\u00a0came back to the floor\u00a0and helped restore an indisputable quorum that paved the way for Republicans to ram through the elections bill and send it to Abbott, who signed it into law Tuesday in Tyler.\r\n\u201cElection integrity is now law in the state of Texas,\u201d Abbott said, issuing the kind of declaration of victory that the Democrats had wanted to postpone for as long as possible \u2014 but knew they could not stop in the end.\r\nThe legislation, Senate Bill 1 as passed during the second special session, overhauls the state\u2019s election laws, including further tightening the voting-by-mail process and outlawing local voting options aimed at expanding access. Republicans have argued the measures would bolster \u201celection integrity,\u201d despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Democrats and voting rights groups criticized the legislation as an infringement on marginalized voters in the state.\r\nBefore the House gave\u00a0the bill a final stamp of approval\u00a0last month, Rep.\u00a0Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat and the longest-serving Black lawmaker in the Legislature\u2019s history, sent a warning shot to Republicans.\r\n\u201cIf you think you\u2019re winning today by the things you have put in this bill, let me give you a prophetic statement: You will reap what you sow. And you know what? It won\u2019t be years or decades from now. It will be sooner than you think,\u201d she said.\r\nFor House Democrats, the story of the second special session is much different from that of the first one. The excitement of leaving the state had worn off, the media spotlight had dimmed, the uphill battle of getting federal legislation to President Joe Biden\u2019s desk was looking steeper than ever and the pressures to return home were mounting.\r\n\u201cI think we\u2019re all leaders, but we were in need of leadership, and that\u2019s the one thing about the Democratic caucus,\u201d said Rep. Jarvis Johnson\u00a0of Houston, acknowledging there are \u201cdifferent mindsets and different ways of achieving a particular goal.\u201d\r\n\u201cWhen you look at those teams that win, those teams that win [do so] because they\u2019re on one message,\u201d he added.\r\nOn top of that, the polarizing process of redrawing the state\u2019s political maps was looming over lawmakers \u2014 and the threat of staying away for much longer, at least for some Democrats, was not appealing if their districts were on the line.\r\n\u201cAt some point, we have to deal with these things in the arena that we\u2019re in, and that\u2019s on the floor of the Legislature,\u201d said Rep.\u00a0Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who was excused throughout both special sessions due to an illness until he returned to the House floor, in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month. \u201cI know for some, that doesn\u2019t hold water. But I am sort of a traditionalist in some ways \u2014 you can only go so far, then you have to honor your office.\u201d\r\n\u201cPractical decisions\u201d\r\nDespite the debate inside the Democratic caucus,\u00a0only two of its members returned\u00a0for the first day of the second special session on Aug. 7: Reps.\u00a0Eddie Lucio III\u00a0of Brownsville and\u00a0Bobby Guerra\u00a0of Mission. Lucio said he returned for both personal and professional reasons and respected his colleagues\u2019 decisions to continue breaking quorum \u2014 but he also made clear they were in a new phase.\r\n\u201cThe chapter of the first special session closed, right?\u201d he told reporters after the chamber adjourned. \u201cIt doesn\u2019t mean that the fight closed, but the chapter of the session \u2014 and that strategy \u2014 closed.\u201d\r\nMeanwhile,\u00a0a separate drama was playing out: Over 20 quorum-breaking Democrats had signed on to a lawsuit against Abbott and House Speaker\u00a0Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, arguing that Republicans\u2019 efforts to bring them back to the Capitol infringed on their constitutional rights. By the next day though, a number of Democrats said they had never authorized their names being used in the suit,\u00a0with some releasing statements\u00a0to that effect.\r\nThat particular suit was just one of the efforts made by Democrats, who had at one point been granted temporary protections against civil arrests, after Republicans in the House signed off on sending law enforcement to track down members.\u00a0Soon after though, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court ordered that missing Democrats could in fact be detained by state authorities and brought back to the Capitol.\r\nThat was the beginning of the end in the eyes of at least one caucus leader, Rep. Rafael Anch\u00eda\u00a0of Dallas, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He said it had become clear the House was \u201cprecariously close\u201d to regaining a quorum, \u201cand it was just a matter of time, through arrests or otherwise,\u201d that the chamber would get there.\r\n\u201cAt that point, we had to make practical decisions,\u201d Anch\u00eda said. \u201cWe had deaths in families. We had missed weddings. We had parents getting sick. We had people needing to take care of their businesses. And so there were any number of very real pressures on legislators, and I\u2019m never going to second-guess a legislator\u2019s decision because I cannot walk in their shoes.\u201d\r\nOn Aug. 9, the quorum-breakers experienced their biggest defection yet as four of them returned to the House floor. The group included Rep.\u00a0Joe Moody, who Phelan had removed as speaker pro tem at the start of the quorum break, and two other El Paso-area lawmakers, Reps.\u00a0Mary Gonz\u00e1lez\u00a0and\u00a0Art Fierro. There was also Rep.\u00a0James Talarico, the rising-star legislator from suburban Austin who was most open about his return, announcing it on Twitter ahead of time.\r\nTalarico and others who would be back on the floor in the coming days would say their return was due to a number of factors, including moving the needle in Washington on federal voting rights legislation, which has so far been blocked by the U.S. Senate, and an acknowledgment that the fight in many ways had returned back to the state Capitol.\r\n\u201cGiven this success and recognizing that we can\u2019t break quorum indefinitely, some of my fellow quorum breakers and I returned to the Texas House to begin the work of rebuilding relationships, negotiating policy, and reducing harm,\u201d Talarico wrote in an Aug. 27 op-ed\u00a0published on Texas Signal\u2019s website. \u201cHarm reduction is not sexy or glamorous. It doesn\u2019t make for good Tweets or lucrative fundraising emails, but it\u2019s necessary work.\u201d\r\nThe four defections\u00a0prompted criticism\u00a0from some of their colleagues, who argued that returning to the House floor was enabling Republicans\u2019 efforts to pass a list of conservative priorities, including that controversial elections legislation. Rep.\u00a0Ana-Maria Ramos\u00a0of Richardson tweeted at the four lawmakers saying they \u201call threw us under the bus today!\u201d\r\n"The fact that some of us secured a Temporary Restraining Order to protect ALL of us, yet some are trying to please the Governor and His OPPRESSIVE Agenda?!\u201d Crockett tweeted. \u201cJUST WOW!"\r\nThe next morning, a coalition of Democratic groups \u2014 including the Texas Organizing Project and Planned Parenthood Texas Votes \u2014 released a memo urging members to keep up the quorum break.\r\nThe intraparty pushback seemed to work. For the next nine days, there were no further defections.\r\n\u201cIt was like blow on top of blow"\r\nThen, on the evening of Aug. 18, Coleman of Houston\u00a0told the Dallas Morning News\u00a0he would be returning to the floor. Coleman, who had been breaking quorum from his home in Houston while recovering from a leg amputation, said that he regretted playing a role in dividing the chamber and that he hoped his presence would help bring more Democrats home.\r\nAs the House\u2019s meeting time approached the next day, it was not clear if Coleman\u2019s gambit would work. But sure enough, Coleman arrived on the floor with two more defectors, fellow Houston Reps.\u00a0Ana Hernandez\u00a0and\u00a0Armando Walle. In a joint statement sent out around the same time, the three Houston lawmakers cited the COVID-19 surge in Texas as the reason for their return.\r\nA short time later, 99 members of the House \u2014 the exact threshold for quorum \u2014 were announced as present \u2014 and it appeared the quorum break was over after nearly six weeks.\r\nCrockett said the return of the three Houston lawmakers \u201creally hurt,\u201d noting they were all lawmakers of color, they all represented safe Democratic districts and they all were from Harris County, whose voting initiatives last year were the impetus for much of the elections bill.\r\n\u201cIt was like blow on top of blow on top of blow,\u201d Crockett said.\r\nThirty-four Democrats who stayed away issued a statement that they were betrayed and heartbroken by the members of their party who returned.\r\n\u201cRepublicans are now fully enabled and empowered to enact virtually all of Abbott\u2019s directives, including many dangerous pieces of legislation that will fundamentally hurt the lives of Texans,\u201d they wrote.\r\nWhile Republicans celebrated the restoration of quorum, Democratic lawmakers who were still watching from outside the chamber were overcome with suspicion. Based on reports from the floor, it was clear that not everyone who was marked as present was physically there.\r\nThe message from some of the most strident quorum-breakers to their colleagues was clear: Don\u2019t fall for it. There\u2019s still no real quorum. Hold the line.\r\nOn Aug. 23, any doubt that the House did not have a quorum dissolved after Rep.\u00a0Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, requested a verification vote to confirm that there were in fact enough members present on the floor for the chamber to conduct business. That vote confirmed that 100 members were present, one over the minimum needed for a quorum.\r\nSome additional members had been monitoring the floor from the nearby Texas AFL-CIO building, watching the live broadcast to see if the House would officially make quorum. After it did, they began streaming to the floor \u2014 over a dozen, including Anch\u00eda and the chairman of the Democratic caucus, Rep.\u00a0Chris Turner\u00a0of Grand Prairie.\r\nThe quorum break was, in effect, over. In an interview with reporters once the chamber adjourned for the day, Turner, Anch\u00eda and Toni Rose\u00a0of Dallas said they had returned once a quorum had been confirmed to represent their districts, and that the fight that had previously been in Washington was now back in Austin at the Capitol.\r\nAsked whether Democrats were still unified, Turner said the caucus could not have pulled off a weekslong \u201cquorum break without incredible unity.\u201d\r\n\u201cThough members may disagree on tactic or strategy at times,\u201d he told reporters, \u201cwe all have shared unity and purpose, shared values and we have a shared commitment to defending the freedom to vote.\u201d\r\nStill, divisions inside the Democratic caucus crystallized three days later, when at least 20 members announced the formation of\u00a0a new Progressive Caucus. While the announcement did not explicitly mention the quorum break, almost all the members of the new caucus were those who had stayed off the floor until late in the second special session, if they returned at all.\r\nThat divide was largely reflective of a broader fracture in the caucus, one that split between members who were supportive of caucus leadership and those who more closely aligned with a more firebrand style that was spearheaded by Rep.\u00a0Trey Martinez Fischer\u00a0of San Antonio.\r\nMartinez Fischer had challenged Turner for the post of caucus chair earlier in the year, and, though the race was close, was unsuccessful in his efforts to unseat his colleague. Members say that tensions from that race at times resurfaced throughout the quorum break as the caucus debated its strategy over how to block the elections legislation.\r\nColeman acknowledged that the experience of the past several weeks has done some damage to his caucus.\r\n\u201cWe\u2019re used to dealing with legislation and people who don\u2019t agree with our philosophy. We\u2019re used to losing a vote. And we\u2019re used to putting up a fight,\u201d Coleman told the Tribune. \u201cIt\u2019s when your colleagues that are part of the same party you\u2019re in basically motherfuck you because they think they can do that. They need to look inside their own cupboard and see the things they\u2019ve done over the decades.\u201d\r\n\u201cWe lose if we do not come together\u201d\u00a0\r\nOf the core 57 Democrats who broke quorum during the first special session, there was only one defection, Rep.\u00a0Philip Cortez\u00a0of San Antonio. However, he returned to Washington days later, citing unproductive talks with Republicans and amid fierce pushback from some members of his own party.\r\nThe extent to which there was dialogue between Republicans in Austin and Democrats in Washington \u2014 and whether members made specific deals with one another during that impasse \u2014 is fuzzy. Phelan has denied that he was involved in any deals.\r\nThe author of the elections bill, Rep.\u00a0Andrew Murr\u00a0of Junction, declined to say Tuesday during a Republican caucus news conference how many quorum-breaking Democrats he spoke with. He said he was willing to speak with any colleague about the elections legislation who wanted to \u2014 but offered a significant caveat.\r\n\u201cMuch of that discussion typically was in person, and all of that discussion needed to occur in the Capitol,\u201d Murr told reporters. \u201cWe thought that was best.\u201d\r\nHouse leadership was clearly uneasy with perhaps the most drastic measure available to them: following through on a threat to physically detain the missing Democrats and bring them back to the Capitol.\r\nWhile Phelan, the House speaker,\u00a0signed 52 civil arrest warrants\u00a0for missing members and law enforcement visited the homes of some lawmakers, no member was ever arrested and brought back to the building in Austin.\r\nIn an interview\u00a0with the Tribune after the second special session adjourned, Phelan suggested that the threat of physically detaining members to bring them back to the Capitol is what helped compel the chamber making a quorum.\r\n\u201cI think many members saw that if we were gonna go there, they were gonna be the ones maybe possibly causing this harm to the House, and that\u2019s why I think you saw a lot of members show up,\u201d Phelan said.\r\nA\u00a0University of Texas\/Texas Politics Project poll\u00a0that was released Thursday showed that Republicans had voters on the side. Respondents disapproved of the quorum break by an 11-percentage-point margin, while they approved of the elections legislation by a 14-point margin.\r\nHow those numbers could impact an election that is still over a year away is an open question.\r\nDemocrats are getting only a few weeks to regroup before the next special session, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 20. While the battle over the elections bill is over, Abbott\u2019s agenda for the third special session includes redistricting, which is always a contentious process that pits members against one another as they fight for their district lines.\r\n\u201cRedistricting is tough under any circumstances,\u201d Anch\u00eda said. \u201cRegardless of how people feel about each other right now, it\u2019s gonna be really important for people to go into this process with a lot of goodwill.\u201d\r\nRose, the Dallas Democrat, said she is confident her caucus will reunite ahead of the next special session.\r\n\u201cHouse Democrats \u2014 we are a family \u2014 and it\u2019s just like any other family,\u201d she said. \u201cThere will be disagreements. We will lose if we do not come together.\u201d\r\nThis story originally published by the Texas Tribune.