A Texas standoff that's crossed state lines

Squirreled away in Oklahoma, Democrats buck the House - and Texas political culture.

A bit of advice to newcomers: Don't back a Texan into a corner. Raised on tales of rebellion and self-reliance, folks here will put up a fight. That independent spirit - and a propensity for going a bit too far - surfaced this week when 53 of 62 Democrats in the Texas House went AWOL in the middle of the session, breaking the quorum and leaving hundreds of bills in jeopardy.

Angry over the course of the new Republican leadership, House Democrats slinked away late Sunday night, bound for a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla. - just over the state line, and beyond jurisdiction of the Texas Rangers. State police had power only to ask the lawmakers to come home, and escort them if they chose to leave. They didn't - and delighted constituents have shown up with cookies, balloons, and cheers.

Not only does the walkout show the lengths Texans go to when they feel they're up against a wall; it may also mark the beginning of partisan politics in the Lone Star's legislature - something that's been relatively absent until now. "Democrats see this as the Alamo," says Gary Keith, a lecturer in government at the University of Texas at Austin. "They are drawing the line in the sand."

Bill that broke the donkey's back

The revolt was spurred by the introduction of a GOP-backed congressional-redistricting bill that Democrats believe would unfairly tilt the balance in favor of Republicans for years to come. They blamed US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas for forcing the issue long before it was required.

Redistricting is always a touchy subject. But this was the breaking point in a particularly contentious session, one that's seen rising tension over a Republican bill to limit lawsuits and a budget that would cut spending without raising taxes.

For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans have the majority in the House - and the transition hasn't been smooth. House Democrats, learning what it's like to be the minority, have used an array of tactics to block and kill unwanted bills. Republicans, who dominate not only the House, but the Senate, the governorship, and nearly all state offices, have been less than enthusiastic about making concessions and building bridges.

It's a radical departure from the way Texas politics have traditionally worked. "Texas has been held up as a kind of model of bipartisanship, with legislators organized not on the basis of party lines but on the basis of political philosophy," says Tucker Gibson, head of the political science department at Trinity University in San Antonio. "Now there appears to be this development of partisanship within the legislature. And we haven't had that up to now."

'Killer Bees' and 'Chicken Ds'

The timing of the walkout comes at a critical time for the Texas legislature: House bills that don't receive final approval by midnight tonight are dead, unless they can be resuscitated in the Senate or tacked onto other bills. Some 600-700 bills, ranging from budget issues to school finance to the redistricting plan, may be affected.

And as media from around the country rushed to Ardmore and Austin for a shot at the unusual, amusing story of the "Killer Ds," viewers couldn't help but wonder: What's in the water down there?

"Sure, politicians in Oregon don't play that way. But this is Texas. You just don't come messing around unless you want to meet out on the street at high noon," says Dr. Gibson. "But this cowboy mentality has gotten us into trouble and it does become irresponsible at some point."

Indeed, political experts say the tactic hasn't been used in any other state - though it has been employed here before. In 1979, a group of 12 Democrats hid out to shut down the Senate in anger over a bill that would have changed the dates that the state held primaries. The dozen missing lawmakers came to be known as the "Killer Bees," and eventually sauntered back into the capitol after then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby promised to kill the bill.

"State troopers were called in to round them up," says Ron Tyler, director of the Texas State Historical Association at the University of Texas in Austin. "Of course, most of them were found in bars and in various swimming pools around town. At least this group left the state."

Still, it didn't take long before the "Chicken Ds," as House Speaker Tom Craddick (R) Midland has dubbed this latest group, were spotted across the Red River in Oklahoma. An all-points bulletin and emergency phone number were created for the crisis.

In refusing to return, the errant lawmakers turned the redistricting issue into a public debate - no doubt just what they were hoping for. But whether they can sway the public in their favor is still unclear. And their jobs are on the line if they can't.

"If they force the legislature into a special session, I think there are going to be some nasty recriminations," says David Guenthner, managing editor of The Lone Star Report, an Austin-based political newsletter. "But more important, this will do more to transform Texas into Washington D.C. than anything in recent memory."

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