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Texas House paralyzed by Democratic walkout

Redistricting at issue

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, speaks with Texas Democrats during a Tuesday news conference at a hotel in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, speaks with Texas Democrats during a Tuesday news conference at a hotel in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

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Correspondent Jason Overstreet of KDFW reports on the Democrats' walkout of the Texas legislature during a reapportionment fight (May 13)
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AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- With action in the Texas House brought to a standstill, roughly 50 state Democratic representatives said they would remain in neighboring Oklahoma "as long as it takes" to block a Republican-drawn redistricting plan that could cost them five seats in Congress.

"There's 51 of us here today, and a quorum of the Texas House of Representatives will not meet without us," said state Rep. Jim Dunnam, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He spoke with reporters outside a hotel in Ardmore, Oklahoma, where the Democrats have holed up.

The walkout has paralyzed the state House for two days. In Austin, Republicans exhibited a deck of cards bearing the lawmakers' pictures -- similar to those issued to U.S. troops to help identify fugitive Iraqi leaders -- and milk cartons bearing the images of the missing lawmakers.

The Democrats are trying to thwart a GOP redistricting plan they say is being pushed by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and a Texan. Democrats call the plan "an outrageous partisan power grab."

They have gathered in Ardmore, just across the state line and beyond the jurisdiction of Texas state police, whom the House's Republican majority has ordered to bring them back to the state Capitol.

"We're here in Ardmore, Oklahoma, because the real problems of Texas are budget problems, are school finance problems, are health care problems that are being cast aside because of a power play by Tom DeLay," Dunnam said. "We are here trying to get Texas government back on the right path."

start quoteWe're fighting for our constituents with the only tool we have left, which was to use the rules of the House to break a quorum.end quote
-- State Rep. Barry Telford

DeLay's office released a statement saying, "Texans deserve representation that reflects their values and beliefs.

"Fifty-six percent of Texas voters cast their vote for a Republican congressional candidate last fall, yet Texas sends more Democrats than Republicans to Congress. We're trying to change that," he said.

In comments to reporters, DeLay said the Democrats "ought to stand and fight," not "turn and run."

Under House rules, the reapportionment plan would have to be brought to a vote by Thursday in order to pass. Republicans hold 88 seats in the 150-member House.

"They may believe they are clever, but the majority of Texans see them as childish," Texas GOP Chairwoman Sue Weddington said. "And they may believe they are courageous, but the majority of Texans see them as cowards."

start quoteThey may believe they are clever, but the majority of Texans see them as childish.end quote
-- Texas GOP Chairwoman Sue Weddington

Bob Richter, a spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, said four of the chamber's 62 Democrats attended Monday's session. At least two more have shown up at the Capitol since then, and a third was expected later Tuesday, but that would leave them short of the 100 needed for the House to resume business.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, called the walkout "cowardly and childish" -- a characterization the Democrats disputed.

"We're fighting for our constituents with the only tool we have left, which was to use the rules of the House to break a quorum," Rep. Barry Telford said.

Unlike Monday, Craddick said he would not require members to remain in the House chamber. But Richter said lawmakers are being asked to remain around the state Capitol.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick
Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick

"The important thing is that they don't drive off to the hill country and have a picnic," he said. "If we're going to get a quorum, we want to get back to work right away."

The walkout is similar to a 1979 gambit by a group of 12 state senators, dubbed the "Killer Bees," who hid out for several days to block changes to the state's presidential primaries.

Political observers say the redistricting plan before the House could mean a shift of up to five seats to the Republicans, giving them a 20-12 edge over Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation and better odds of keeping control of Congress.

The Texas Legislature failed to passed a new district map after the 2000 census, so a federal court ordered a reapportionment plan in 2001. November's elections gave Democrats a 17-15 edge in congressional seats, but Republicans took control of the state House and Senate and reopened the redistricting debate.

Democrats want to keep the court plan in place until the 2010 census.

-- CNN Correspondent Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.


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