Texas Democrats Face Covid Outbreak and a Stalled Voting Rights Push

After at least six state lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus, the group is now confined to a Washington hotel, holding virtual meetings and making little headway in its persuasion campaign.


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WASHINGTON — Democratic state lawmakers from Texas arrived in Washington last week with plans to apply unending pressure on the Senate to pass voting rights protections that would help counteract a Republican election overhaul bill back home.

Then a Covid-19 outbreak stalled their progress.

The entire delegation from Texas is now stuck at a Washington hotel after six of the Democratic state representatives tested positive for the coronavirus, and officials from the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office who met with them have also tested positive. All of those who have tested positive are fully vaccinated, but nobody in the capital is now particularly eager to meet in person with the group, which has resorted to virtual meetings.

In the meantime, Senate Democratic leaders remain focused on passing an infrastructure package, President Biden is in a standoff with social media companies, and there has been no public sign that the Texas Democrats have won over any senators who weren’t already on board with their push to pass new federal voting legislation without clearing a 60-vote Senate threshold. They have not secured a meeting with Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona or with any Republicans.

And they cannot go home to Texas for another two and a half weeks or they will risk being arrested for leaving the state.

The lawmakers’ journey began last week when nearly 60 Democratic members of the State House departed Texas in an effort to prevent the passage of a restrictive new voting bill by the Republican-controlled Legislature. After their arrival in Washington was met with a swarm of television cameras in an airport parking lot, subsequent efforts to draw attention to their cause were less successful.

Now, with the coronavirus appearing to spread among the lawmakers, plans for larger events like a Washington gathering of supportive state legislators from across the country have been delayed.

“If anything, this goes into a low gear, but I think the momentum still builds and we’re in a perfect position when this thing crescendos,” said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a leader of the delegation who on Tuesday was in the third day of a 10-day quarantine in his hotel room after testing positive for the virus. “It’s slowed things down a little bit, but this Covid is not unique to us. It may just change our engagement methods, but we still have a way to make a splash.”

The outbreak, which began on Saturday with three positive tests among the Texas lawmakers, has now spread beyond the group. A press aide for Ms. Pelosi tested positive on Monday after coming into contact with members of the Texas Legislature last week, said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for the speaker.

He said the aide had had no contact with the speaker since being exposed to the virus. Mr. Hammill added that Ms. Pelosi’s press office was working remotely, except for aides who had tested negative or who did not come in contact with the infected aide.


The Texas lawmakers met with Vice President Kamala Harris on July 13, their first full day in Washington, but they have yet to meet with President Biden.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

At a news conference on Tuesday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said a fully vaccinated White House official had also tested positive for the virus “off campus,” was experiencing “mild symptoms,” and remained away from the complex awaiting a test to confirm the diagnosis.

The news of the infections rattled some on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers and their aides have been moving toward more normal operations for months.

By staying away from the State Capitol in Austin, the Democratic state representatives have denied Republicans a quorum necessary for the State House to conduct business, delaying the passage of new restrictions on voting. Those voting measures, along with other conservative priorities, were put forward in a special session that was called only because the State House Democrats walked out of the Capitol in the final hours of the regular session in May, denying Republicans an opportunity to pass a voting bill then.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has threatened to have Texas House Democrats who return to the state arrested and “cabined” in the State House chamber until a quorum is reached.

Mr. Abbott and other Texas Republicans have relentlessly mocked the Democrats. Dade Phelan, the Republican speaker of the Texas State House, has demanded they return their $221 per diem, said he had chartered a plane from Washington to pick them up, and said he had consulted with the state health commissioner “for any additional guidance on protocols for those exposed to Covid-19 post-vaccination.”

The Texas Democrats, who are all said to be vaccinated, did not wear masks on their two charter flights from Austin to the Washington area, nor did they on buses to and from the airports.

Because of the outbreak, meetings and conferences that would have taken place in person are now on screens. Plans for at least the next week have been frozen.

The Fight Over Voting Rights

After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws that make it harder to vote and that change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of June 21, lawmakers had passed 28 new laws in 17 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking rules concerning the Electoral College and judicial elections, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

“Everybody is scrambling because the realization is hitting that this new strain is among us and is very contagious even among people who are vaccinated,” Gina Hinojosa, a state representative from Austin, said.

On Tuesday morning, the delegation met over a video call with Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat. Mr. Clyburn, Ms. Hinojosa said, remains optimistic that the Senate can pass a federal voting rights overhaul before early August, when the current special session of the Texas Legislature will expire. (Mr. Abbott has promised to call a new one if Democrats do not return by Aug. 6, when the session ends.)

Mr. Clyburn encouraged the Texans, they said, to push to have a key measure in the proposed John Lewis Voting Rights Act — the Justice Department’s preclearance requirements, under which a number of states mostly in the South had to receive federal approval before changing voting laws — transferred to the more comprehensive For the People Act, which passed the House and remains stalled in the Senate.

A representative for Mr. Clyburn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Later on Tuesday, the Texas Democratic delegation, whose members are now undergoing daily virus tests, hosted a virtual news conference, reiterating the long history of civil rights and voting rights battles and reaffirming their commitment to push Congress and the White House to pass federal voting legislation.

But the members were confined to pixelated Zoom boxes, and some of them simply had avatars appear when they spoke, or black boxes with their names half obscured.

“We have a very robust agenda in terms of continued outreach to members of Congress,” said State Representative Ron Reynolds, who represents the Houston area. “We’re still working diligently through the Covid protocols that we’ve already set in place.”

He added: “We’re not doing as many in-person visits. We’re still having many meetings via Zoom.”

The members also said they remained hopeful for a meeting with Mr. Biden; while they met with Vice President Kamala Harris on their first full day in Washington, they have yet to secure a meeting with the president.

“We know the president is watching,” said State Representative Ina Minjarez, who is from San Antonio. “We’re waiting for him to call.”

Luke Broadwater and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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