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Texas state senators pass governor's agenda while state House is stalled

Texas Democrats on COVID, voting rights
Texas Democrats on COVID, voting rights 09:51

The Texas Legislature's special session remains stymied by the departure of several state House Democrats to Washington, D.C., whose absence left Republicans without a quorum. But while the House's work has been frozen, the GOP-controlled Senate has been working away, passing legislation during Texas Governor Greg Abbott's special session. 

Nine Senate Democrats initially joined their House colleagues in Washington, but four others stayed in Austin, which meant enough members were present to form a quorum and vote on legislation. Since the session began, lawmakers have tackled key conservative issues, such as elections, bail reform, transgender sports and critical race theory. 

"Our folks have put in two weeks of work in about one week, so our members are standing down," Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who also serves as president of the Senate, told reporters on Wednesday. "They're on five-hour notice to be at the Capitol, should the Democrats come back."

The Senate Democrats who went to Washington are now back in Austin. They applauded their House colleagues' efforts to leave the state and slammed S.B. 1, the Senate's sweeping election bill, which passed the chamber last week

"Texas Democrats aren't going to take this lying down: we're going to fight with everything that we have," said state Senator Carol Alvarado, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. "The Texas Democrats are ready to bring the fight right here back to Austin."

Democratic state Senator Royce West later told reporters that "all of our tools are on the table" moving forward. West and other Democrats insisted they want to work with Abbott on any election bills. Patrick later told reporters that Republicans are "always willing to listen if (the Democrats) have suggestions that we think don't change the focus of the bill."

In addition to the election bill, Texas senators have also passed measures that would change the Texas' bail rules, including preventing charitable organizations from paying bail to someone accused of a violent offense, require student athletes to play sports corresponding with their sex listed at birth, and ban medically induced abortions after about seven weeks of pregnancy. 

The Senate also passed a bill related to topics that can be taught in school. It states that "a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs." It also updates a similar bill that Abbott signed in June, including removing some requirements in that bill such as teaching the ways that White supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan are "morally wrong." 

Republicans contend that the current education code in Texas already has requirements for teaching some of the items outlined in the bill signed earlier this year, including the history of slavery and how the Ku Klux Klan "created obstacles to civil rights for minorities such as the suppression of voting." 

"The bill over in the House put a specific reading list in, and we heard from teachers and from the State Board of Education. They said, 'Hey, we have a process for that. We already have those in the curriculum. Take those specific things out,'" Republican state Senator Bryan  Hughes, the bill's author, told reporters on Wednesday. "George Washington was also removed (by the Senate bill). Does that mean he's also not going to be taught? Of course not."

Abbott has pledged to keep calling special sessions until his agenda is passed. Patrick suggested on Wednesday that Texas should consider updating its quorum rules, which would require amending the state constitution. 

"You can't have Republicans or Democrats - either party - holding democracy hostage because they're losing on an issue, and they decide they're going to leave the state," Patrick said. 

Texas House Democrats have said they're committed to staying outside of Texas for the remainder of the special session. If they were to return before the session ends, law enforcement officers could force them to return to the Capitol and vote. 

"We are committed to being here, to killing the first called 'suppression session' in Texas, which ends on August 7," state representative Trey Martinez Fischer told CBSN in an interview on Wednesday. "I think many of us are bound and determined to push for a national solution and we have the time to do it."

Democrats have criticized many items on Abbott's special session agenda, but their main target has been the proposed changes to Texas' election law. Patrick reiterated on Wednesday that an election bill will pass the legislature at some point. 

"This bill's going to pass," Patrick said. "Is it in August or September or October? Is it next February? Is it next June? This bill is going to pass because the people of Texas, of all colors, want safe and secure elections."

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