Fugitive Texas Democrats declare victory
Promise return to Capitol Friday
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Texas Democratic lawmakers who fled to neighboring Oklahoma say they're going back to Austin early Friday after a four-day walkout that killed a Republican-backed redistricting plan they said would have cost them five seats in the U.S. Congress.
A group of 51 Democrats from the Texas House of Representatives fled to a hotel in Ardmore, Oklahoma, evading state police sent to bring them back to Austin and preventing a quorum in the GOP-run House.
"We feel that we have killed the redistricting bill as of now, or at least as of tonight at 12 o'clock," said state Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston. "And that's why we'll be returning to Austin to continue and finish the work that we have to do."
The redistricting plan, which Democrats called an abuse of power by the Legislature's Republican majority, will die in the House if not voted on by midnight Thursday. Eiland said lawmakers plan to return to work Friday morning.
"It will be our intent to get back to Texas, hopefully unobstructed, so that we can be at our desks in the morning at the beginning of business," he said.
Without a quorum of two-thirds of the 150 House members, legislative business has come to a standstill. House Speaker Tom Craddick said Thursday he was "disappointed in the way they treated the process."
Republicans mocked the fleeing lawmakers as the "Chicken Ds" and printed playing cards with their pictures on them -- much like the cards U.S. troops in Iraq have been issued to help identify fugitive Iraqi leaders.
But they drew support from famed Texas singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, who sent a batch of his trademark red bandannas to their hotel Wednesday night along with the message, "Stand your ground."
House Republicans voted to send Texas Rangers and state troopers after the lawmakers to bring them back to Austin. But the legislators were outside the troopers' jurisdiction once they crossed state lines.
Craddick, R-Midland, said the walkout has killed more than 400 House bills and could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, and damaged the state's reputation.
"We're on the late-night talk shows and things like that, and I think that that harms the image of the state overall," he said.
The Democrats say they would lose as many as five seats in Congress under the Republican redistricting plan. They say the plan is being pushed through the Legislature at the behest of Texas congressman Tom DeLay, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.
DeLay has said that "Texans deserve representation that reflects their values and beliefs," noting that all statewide officeholders and a majority of the Legislature are Republicans.
And several black Democrats refused to join the walkout, since the redistricting plan would have created a majority African-American congressional district.
"If they come back and assume that everything's going to be hunky-dory, I think they're mistaken," said Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston.
The walkout also prompted accusations that the federal Department of Homeland Security had aided Texas authorities searching for Rep. Pete Laney as he left the state.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Thursday that Texas state police called the Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center, located in Riverside, California, in an effort to locate Laney's private plane.
In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said he didn't know whether the report was true, but "I doubt it."
"Trying to find a bunch of disgruntled legislators" is not part of the department's mission, he said, and added that the report would be checked.
A government official told CNN the center got a call from an officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety who said to them, "I am trying to find a plane. Here is the tail number."
AMICC personnel made a couple of phone calls, assuming the plane was missing or downed, the official said. After making those calls, the AMICC contacted the Texas Public Safety Department and suggested they call the Federal Aviation Administration to initiate a missing plane report.
CNN Correspondents Ed Lavandera and Jeanne Meserve and Producer Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.