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Pressure mounts on holdouts as Texas House speaker signs civil arrest warrants for 52 Democrats

AUSTIN, Texas — Thirty days after Democrats left Texas to stop new voting restrictions, cracks in the standoff widened Tuesday as more began returning home from Washington, D.C., and Republicans again authorized using law enforcement to find those who still refuse to come back.

But unlike a month ago, when missing Democrats were out of state and beyond the reach of Texas officers, some are now holding out from home. Republican Dade Phelan, speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, said Democrats could be compelled to return under “warrant of arrest if necessary,” although the stalemate remains a civil and not criminal matter.

“People aren’t going to jail, but they got to come back to work,” Republican state Rep. Mayes Middleton said.

How soon or even whether law enforcement would seek out Democrats was not immediately clear. But the move and other setbacks for Democrats put the protest over a GOP elections overhaul on unsteady ground a month after more than 50 of them bolted to Washington, D.C., in a dramatic show of unity to make Texas the front lines of a new national battle over voting rights.

Late Tuesday, Phelan spokesman Enrique Marquez confirmed reports first published by The Dallas Morning News that the speaker had signed civil arrest warrants for 52 House Democrats. The move marks a new effort by the GOP to end the protest over an elections bill a month after more than 50 of them bolted to Washington, D.C., in a dramatic show of resolve to make Texas the front lines of a new national battle over voting rights.

The pressure tactic by Republicans comes as Democrats disagree over how — and when — to retreat. The divisions have spilled in the open as the GOP presses forward with a third attempt to pass an elections overhaul. With new court losses and attention turning toward Texas’ surging COVID-19 caseloads, pressure is mounting on Democrats who lack the numbers to permanently stop a bill from passing.

As of Tuesday, Republicans needed just five more lawmakers present in the House to move forward with a raft of tweaks and changes to the state’s election code would make it harder — and even, sometimes, legally riskier — to cast a ballot in Texas, which already has some of the most restrictive election laws in the nation.

“We had many heated debates in Washington as we debated our own next steps,” said state Rep. James Talarico, one of a handful of Democrats who returned to the Texas Capitol this week. “I’m going to keep those arguments in private. But I know emotions are rightfully running high everywhere, and it’s been a difficult month.”

Texas is among several states where Republicans have rushed to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The current bill is similar to the ones Democrats blocked last month by going to Washington. It would ban 24-hour polling locations, drive-thru voting and give partisan poll watchers more access, among other things.

It was unclear Tuesday how many Democrats remained in Washington. The ranks of the group had dwindled to less than half. Some who stayed behind have publicly fumed at a handful of colleagues who returned to the Legislature. Progressive allies are also pressuring wavering Democrats to hold the line and stay away from the Capitol, even if they come back to Texas.

“You threw us under the bus today! Why?” Dallas Democratic state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos said in a tweet that included a picture of Talarico and other Democrats on the floor of the Texas House.

Democrats had preemptively sought to block the GOP from using law enforcement to compel their attendance. But in another setback, the Texas Supreme Court blocked those efforts Tuesday.

State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, who returned to Texas this week, said she and fellow Democrats have consistently agreed in daily check-ins that they “are committed to quorum break at this time.” She said those who returned did so for personal, professional and political reasons, including helping their districts through COVID-19 surges.

Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel was also back in Austin and said “there is no way” she will return to the Texas House. On Tuesday, she delivered doughnuts to teachers and met with constituents.

“Every day that we can not be on the floor doing business according to Gov. Abbott’s agenda is a good day,” Israel said.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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