Texas House Speaker signs arrest warrant for Democratic lawmaker

Speaker Dade Phelan has signed a civil warrant for the arrest of Democratic Rep. Philip Cortez, saying he violated a promise to GOP House members that he’d stay in Austin and try to resolve a partisan deadlock over a voting bill.

On Monday, Phelan issued a statement saying that Cortez, a House committee chairman, though he returned from Washington to Austin last week voluntarily, had broken an oral commitment to return to the House chamber Monday.

“Rep. Cortez returned to the Texas Capitol of his own volition and represented to me and his fellow members that he wanted to work on policy and find solutions to bring his colleagues back to Texas,” said Phelan, R-Beaumont.

“As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return. Instead, he fled the state and has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber.”

House Administration Committee Chairman Will Metcalf, a Conroe Republican who is a top Phelan lieutenant, reinforced House leaders’ ire at Cortez.

Cortez “broke his promise” to return to the House on Monday, Metcalf tweeted.

“The Texas House is no different than anywhere else: your word is your bond,” he said.

On Monday, Cortez responded that he sought over the past week to “reach a resolution” with GOP leaders over a controversial elections bill.

“I owe a duty to my constituents to do everything I can to stop this harmful legislation,” he said in a written statement. “I will continue fighting for my constituents to ensure fair and full access to the ballot box. All Texans deserve nothing less.”

Cortez’s decision to return to Washington surprised Republicans almost as much as his solo mission to “improve” the bill startled Democrats. Last Wednesday, he ended his quorum break and returned to Austin. But then Sunday evening, Cortez returned to Washington, tweeting that “discussions with Republican leadership didn’t yield any substantive results.”

Shortly after 7 p.m. CT Sunday, the House Democratic Caucus announced Cortez was back in the nation’s capital.

“We welcome Rep. Phil Cortez, who is a valued member of our Caucus, back to Washington, D.C. with open arms,” said Caucus Chairman Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

About 10 p.m. Sunday, Phelan signed the warrant directing the House sergeant-at-arms “or any officer appointed by him” to take Cortez “into your custody and safekeeping and bring said Member before the bar of the House instanter,” which is Latin for urgently.

“HEREIN FAIL NOT, but make due return hereof to this House,” the warrant concludes.

For the past 14 days, Phelan has signed – and his parliamentarians have distributed – daily permission slips to roughly 80 to 90 House members in Austin. The slips, printed on a different color of paper each day, let members move freely to their Capitol offices and Austin residences during a “call of the House.” By a 76-4 vote, the House approved the call on July 13, a day after Democrats fled to Washington to block passage of the GOP-backed elections bill.

The call empowers the House sergeant-at-arms to round up missing members using all available methods, including civil arrest warrants and help from Texas law enforcement agencies.

Their reach doesn’t extend beyond Texas’ borders, though, as Phelan’s warrant for Cortez underscored. It directed the sergeant-at-arms to find the absent Cortez, ”wherever said Member may be found in the State.”

On July 12, Cortez and more than 55 other Democrats fled to Washington to deny the 150-member House the 100-person quorum that the state Constitution requires be established before it can conduct business. Their target was HB 3, the election bill that a select House committee approved along party lines on July 11. Though Republicans say the measure is needed to curtail vote fraud, Democrats say it’s designed to discourage minorities from voting.

Also Monday, Metcalf, whose Administration panel oversees House payroll and assignments of offices and parking spaces, sent members a memo describing what will happen if lawmakers don’t soon restore the $410.4 million of funding for the Legislature in the 2022-2023 cycle. Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed that portion of the budget, known as “Article X,” after House Democrats walked out, blocking passage of the election bill in late May.

“If Article X funding is not restored prior to September 1st, the House will not have the authority or funding to pay for employee salaries and the many services, contracts, and leases currently in place,” Metcalf wrote. “The implications to the operation of the House are significant.”

Eliminated will be pay and benefits for lawmakers’ staff members, lease payments for district offices and printing of members’ newsletters and House wall calendars, Metcalf noted.

“Cleaning services, including COVID-19 disinfection for the House Chamber, will be disrupted,” he said. Metcalf didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether continued special sessions would be unsafe for House members as the virus’ Delta variant proliferates.

House Democrats, the Texas AFL-CIO and legislative staff members have sued to overturn Abbott’s veto, which they say violates the Texas Constitution’s separation-of-powers clauses. Attorney General Ken Paxton has said House Democrats lack standing to bring the suit, and Abbott’s veto was a legitimate attempt to check how they “abdicated” their duties. The case is pending before the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, on which Abbott once served.

Turner, the House Democratic Caucus leader, was asked if the shutoff of funds will bring Democrats back to participate in the special session.

“House Democrats have made clear that we are not interested in participating in Greg Abbott’s unconstitutional attempt to blackmail the Legislature,” Turner replied. “No governor can be be allowed the power to defund an entire co-equal branch of government.”

The special session has to end by Aug. 6. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he’ll call more special sessions until the Legislature passes key agenda items they failed to pass in this year’s regular session, such as bills assuring “election integrity” and overhauling bail-setting procedures.

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