AUSTIN — Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R, has signed a warrant for the arrest of a Democratic legislator – the first one he has signed since dozens of Democrats fled the state earlier this month in a bid to prevent Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.

Phelan signed the warrant Sunday, directing law enforcement to take Rep. Philip Cortez into custody and bring him to the House after Cortez returned to Austin to negotiate with Republicans, then abruptly went back to Washington D.C.

Although the warrant is unlikely to be carried out now, as it is not enforceable outside Texas, the move escalates the showdown between Texas Republicans and Democrats over voting access less than two weeks before the House’s special legislative session is scheduled to end.

“This past week I attempted to work with Republican leadership to reach a resolution to HB 3,” Cortez said in a statement, referring to the voting bill. “I owe a duty to my constituents to do everything I can to stop this harmful legislation.”

Cortez and 56 other House Democrats left Texas two weeks ago to stall the elections legislation by depriving Republicans of the minimum number of legislators necessary to do business in the House. The state Senate has since passed its version of the voting bill, which would eliminate 24-hour and drive-through voting, change the requirements for voting by mail, and allow poll watchers to be close enough to “hear and see” voters.

The Democrats have vowed to remain in Washington until the end of the special session, which can run no later than Aug. 6. But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has promised to continue calling special sessions until the voting legislation passes, complicating the path forward for Democrats.

The threat of arrest looms over the entire caucus.

On July 13, House lawmakers voted for a “call of the House,” in which attendance was taken and the chamber’s doors were locked. Members present also voted for their absent peers to “be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found,” a move supported by Abbott, who threatened that legislators would be arrested upon returning to Texas.

But Phelan had not taken the final step of signing an arrest warrant for an individual member until Sunday, after Cortez announced his departure to Washington. The speaker has not yet signed any other warrants, his office said.

Last Wednesday, Cortez returned to Austin, prompting criticism from some Democrats still in D.C. who opposed his move. In a statement, Cortez said that he’d come back to negotiate House Bill 3 at the behest of other Democrats who wanted his help. House members were called to the floor Saturday and Sunday, though it was not immediately clear if Cortez was there.

On Monday, Phelan said he had granted Cortez permission to leave the floor on the condition that he would return. While quorum is broken, members have to check in to floor sessions every day and receive a permission slip from Phelan to leave.

“Instead, he fled the state and has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber,” Phelan said.

In a statement, House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said Cortez was welcomed back to D.C. “with open arms,” adding, “We are united and unrelenting in our commitment to protect the freedom to vote.”

In Washington, the Democrats continue to hold daily meetings and discussions on elections policy. On Thursday, three are scheduled to testify before the U.S. House Oversight subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

The legislators have also tried to establish normal routines at their downtown D.C. hotel – battling homesickness and boredom by Zooming with family members, playing board games and eating dinner together.

Democratic State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond said Cortez’s return has “helped continue to unify and solidify our resolve.” But, he added during a virtual news conference Monday, “this ain’t no vacation.”

“I miss my son and my daughter, too, and I lost my other son 18 months ago, and for the first time, I wasn’t able to go see him, to visit his grave at least once a week,” said a tearful Raymond, whose 23-year-old son died in December 2019.”We’re here for a purpose.”

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