"Welcome home, Texas heroes," one sign read as the lawmakers stepped up to the Capitol to cheers and applause from like-minded citizens. The Democrats stood momentarily, smiling and waving at the exuberant crowd, some wearing yellow ribbons.
"We've weathered a few things. We've weathered some troopers; we've weathered a tornado, and we weathered Denny's," said Democrat Jim Dunnum, who emerged as the group's ringleader. "No matter what happens, democracy won in this event."
The revolt killed a divisive congressional redistricting bill that would have created more Republican seats.
The 51 exiled Democrats congratulated each other for enduring four days away from a Republican-dominated Texas House chamber and avoiding the reach of state troopers who were ordered to round them up for blocking legislative business. There must be a quorum — 100 of the 150 House members — for the House to do business.
"Thank you, you've saved us!" one onlooker shouted to a lawmaker as he walked by.
The House session convened at 9 a.m., with a quorum present at last. Republicans who had seethed at the Democrats' walkout sat quietly at their desks as their colleagues streamed in to loud applause from spectators in the gallery.
Earlier, as the Democrats' two charter buses pulled up to the Capitol, Rep. Pete Gallego said, "Hey, guys — be proud of yourselves. We really made a difference."
The buses had departed late Thursday from a hotel in Ardmore, Okla., 30 miles north of the Texas state line, just before the redistricting bill died in Austin as a midnight deadline passed.
"It feels good. It's good to be back," said Democrat Rep. Garnet Coleman. "We're tired and we slept some. And we should be ready to continue working on the floor today. We have bills on the calendar."
Eighteen days remain in the regular session. Important issues such as homeowners insurance reform and passing revenue-generating bills to help a $9.9 billion budget shortfall can still be addressed through Senate legislation, amendments and other tools not affected by Thursday's deadline, Democrats say.
The already strange story took a bizarre twist Thursday with political accusations that U.S House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, misused federal power in a failed attempt to track down the missing lawmakers.
CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports the charges came from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who said Homeland Security resources were used to search for an airplane belonging to the leader of the Texas Democrats, former speaker Pete Laney.
Homeland officials in a statement released Thursday, said they were asked Monday afternoon to look for the plane. The request came from a Texas Department of Public Safety officer who said, "We got a problem. We had a plane. It had state representatives in it and we cannot find this plane."
Under the impression they were looking for a missing or crashed airplane, a Customs control center in California mounted a search. Federal officials never did locate the plane.
Texas congressmen strongly suggested the call to the feds was prompted by DeLay, a proponent of the Texas redistricting plan that sparked the Democrats' walkout in the first place.
"Not content as U.S. House commander, redistricting czar and mapmaker for the Texas legislature, J. Edgar DeLay apparently also seeks a job directing law enforcement," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
DeLay's office denied the charge. A spokesman for the majority leader said he was asked by the Texas speaker to ask the U.S. Justice Department if federal resources could be used to return the missing lawmakers. But DeLay's spokesman said the congressman had no further involvement and is not even sure if Justice answered the inquiry.
Homeland Security officials said they did not know who was behind the request from the Texas public safety officer. But federal officials said the police in Texas "have a lot of explaining to do."