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Lone Star State lawmakers put Texas-sized pressure on Washington Democrats over voting rights

(CNN)Nearly two dozen Democratic members of the Texas state Legislature are taking their voting rights fight from Austin to Washington this week.

The trip is a "Hail Mary" effort of sorts, to apply some Texas-sized pressure on US lawmakers to support the passage of the For the People's Act, a comprehensive federal voting rights bill that would counteract many of the voting restrictions put in place by Republicans at the state level.
The cross-country blitz comes just weeks after Texas Democrats, in dramatic fashion, notched a rare victory in killing the Republican-controlled Legislature's flagship election overhaul bill, Senate Bill 7, by walking off the state House floor as the clocked ticked down on the 2020 session. The move left the Republican majority without the quorum they needed to approve the bill this session in the final hours before a midnight deadline. The state's Republican governor, who claimed the bill improved election security, has vowed to call a special session to bring the contents of SB7 back for a vote later this year, sparking a renewed effort by Texas Democrats to push for federal intervention.

"Without a national standard for voting rights and voting reform, states are going to just chip away at the rights of voters state by state," Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the SB7 walk-out organizers, told CNN shortly after arriving in Washington, DC, on Monday. "Hopefully, this might inform minds and shape opinions when folks are in that Senate cloakroom wrestling over how they're going to proceed with HR1 and HR4."

The Lone Star State lawmakers will visit the White House Wednesday for a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, who just two weeks ago was tasked by President Joe Biden to lead efforts to preserve voting rights. A spokesperson for the vice president told CNN on Monday the goal was "to hear from the Democratic TX state legislators on their work to stop SB7 which would have stripped away Texans' fundamental right to vote."

Speaking to reporters Monday from South Carolina, Harris said, "Voting rights and this issue of free and fair elections are one of the most important pillars of our democracy, and we're seeing efforts to weaken it, and so we're going to be in support of everything that we can possibly to do push back against laws that are designed to suppress peoples' right to vote, and we're going to push for people to be more informed about what is happening, so they can also hold their elected officials accountable in the states and all over the country."

"I can't think of a more symbolic demonstration of our freedom and our democracy, than to be at the White House on Wednesday meeting with the vice president of the United States, talking about defending our democracy at home, when at the very same time, President Biden will be in Switzerland meeting with President Putin talking about the need to preserve democracy abroad," said Martinez Fischer. "So, I think Wednesday is a big day for democracy for the world. And we're just honored to be a part of it, to stand with Vice President Harris and recommit our support for voting rights reform."

But before they visit the White House, the Texas state Democrats will sit down on Tuesday with HR1/S1 cosponsors, as well as some of the legislation's most vocal supporters on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also invited the Texas lawmakers to join the Senate Democrats for lunch Tuesday to talk about new voting restrictions.
Also on the schedule for the Democratic delegation are meetings with staff from the offices of their home state senators -- Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. The Texas Republicans are staunch opponents of the congressional proposals.

"I know that there are people up there that are for this, and we're going to meet with them. We're going to tell them, 'Thank you,' and see what we can do to help them continue this fight. And then, of course, we know that there are folks who are on the fence or undecided or against either all of it, or some of it. And, you know, as a lawmaker, I want to get deep on that. I want to know, 'Are you a hell no? Are you just opposed to some provisions?' Because there's always a negotiator somewhere, trying to find a third way," explained Martinez Fischer, when asked how their trip might make an impact on seemingly steadfast positions on the bill.

On Monday, Pelosi sent a letter to her colleagues reiterating her support for the bill, saying the passage of the For the People's Act is essential for stopping what she called the "anti-democratic tide" of voter restriction bills passed in state legislatures around the country, adding "outside mobilization is essential for our success."

To that end, the Texas Democrats plan to put an exclamation point on their week of action on voting rights by attending a major rally headlined by former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke on Sunday in Austin.

O'Rourke, who has been traveling the state of Texas hosting voting rights events spoke with CNN on Monday night after a voter registration rally outside of Houston, said he believes the national attention his home state Democrats attracted last month can help add the right kind of pressure to his former Capitol Hill colleagues.

"It didn't end when they walked out. They're continuing this fight, and they're pushing the US Senate Democrats to do their part, right? Like they didn't just wash their hands of it and walk away. They're up in DC and applying that pressure and offering that example of what leadership and courage looks like," said O'Rourke, who noted that he believes Democrats still aren't doing enough to meet the moment.

"This is your example, they're in the political minority, they were able to do it. And you, you in the political majority certainly must do it. And I also hope a spur to President Biden to do -- he's done amazing work on this -- but to do even more ... I want him to bring us together around this existential threat to representative government in America."

But the most obvious target for O'Rourke and Texas state Democrats this week in Washington is Sen. Joe Manchin.

Though the Texas state lawmakers hope to speak with him, there's no official meeting scheduled with the West Virginia Democrat who recently announced his dislike of the legislation and is the only Democrat in the US Senate not listed as a co-sponsor of the bill.

"We now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized," the West Virginia said in the op-ed published last Sunday in the Charleston Gazette. "Today's debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage."

He added: "Some Democrats have again proposed eliminating the Senate filibuster rule in order to pass the For the People Act with only Democratic support. They've attempted to demonize the filibuster and conveniently ignore how it has been critical to protecting the rights of Democrats in the past."

Activists, like Charlie Bonner with MOVE Texas, who have been meeting with the state lawmakers leading up to this trip hope the personal stories from the lawmakers on the ground will have some kind of impact.

"We've got one shot to get this right- real action, not some form of watered down bullshit on this, to be passed. We need real comprehensive action to protect the right to vote right now, that is clear from all of these states. This is it," said Bonner in a phone interview with CNN. "If we allow these laws to be rewritten that make it easier to overturn elections to make it easier to go after election officials you don't agree with, let them be vilified for doing their jobs... There's no going back from that. So we either stop this now or reap the consequences for generations."

"It requires urgency and it requires real action. And we have to make that clear to people. Because from what I'm seeing, that is not clear to the Joe Manchins of the world right now. He does not understand the gravity of what is happening in Texas and the reality of what is happening across the south in this moment."

A reality that -- after meetings in the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill and a planned rally this weekend -- Texas Democrats will likely deal with sooner rather than later in the promised special session to bring back the bill they're still celebrating defeating.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Martinez Fischer said. "You know, there's no saying in Texas about fighting on your feet, rather than dying on your knees. Right? And so we are fighting. This is gonna be a fight to the bitter end. And it's really incumbent upon everybody to do what they can."

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