ARDMORE, Okla., May 13 (UPI) -- Rebel Democrats refused Tuesday to return to the Texas House unless Republican leaders drop a congressional redistricting bill backed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
About 51 Democratic state representatives are holed up at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., just across the state line, where they are safe from state troopers dispatched by Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican. Their absences are preventing the quorum GOP leaders need to conduct business in the 150-member House.
The Democrats reported their absence to Craddick early Monday, the day the congressional redistricting bill was to come up for debate. At least two-thirds of the members are necessary to conduct business under the House rules. The state troopers dispatched by Craddick have no jurisdiction in Oklahoma.
The Democrats say DeLay is behind the recent move to push a new redistricting plan through the Republican-controlled Legislature to increase the number of GOP members in the Texas delegation. There are currently 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans. The GOP could pick up at least four more seats.
DeLay has said the current Texas redistricting plan doesn't represent the political sentiment of Texas, which last year elected the first Republican Legislature since Reconstruction. All the major statewide offices in Austin are now held by Republicans.
At a news conference Tuesday, Democrats said the walkout was the only option they had left to stop the redistricting bill. They pointed out that only two states, the other one being Colorado, have been asked to address redistricting this year.
"We have a message for Tom DeLay, 'Don't mess with Texas,'" said state Rep. Jim Dunnam, of Waco. "We did not choose the path that led us to Ardmore, Okla. Tom DeLay chose that path."
Dunnam and other Democrats said in the last two weeks of the session they want to address issues like school finance, homeowner's insurance rates, and a budget shortfall of $9.9 billion. They said those issues have been put on hold while the Republican-controlled Legislature takes up congressional redistricting.
"One powerful member of Congress has wrongly decided to usurp the power given to 150 members of the Texas House in order to establish an unquestionable hold on national power," said Rep. Richard Raymond, of Laredo. "Congressman DeLay is wrong to upset a process that should be left to deal with every 10 years."
A three-judge panel drew a new congressional redistricting plan for Texas two years ago, following the census, and it was certified by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Democrats say there is no need for a new plan at this time.
Craddick said the missing Democrats were elected to work and represent their districts.
"It's not a disgrace to stand and fight, but it is a disgrace to run and hide," he said.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry called the Democratic walkout "cowardly and childish" and he said the protest was endangering a number of critical bills.
"These legislators have been elected and paid to come to work by hardworking Texans," he said. "They are asked to work for 140 days every two years -- not hide out because they don't like the way the debate is going."
More than 20 years ago in Texas a group of 12 Democratic senators called the "Killer Bees" walked out and went into hiding. They killed a bill that was designed to aid the presidential campaign of Republican Gov. John Connally by moving the Texas primary date.
One of the most famous national examples of breaking a quorum was in 1881 in the U.S. Senate when the Republicans had a slight advantage and the Democrats walked out to stop the GOP from electing new officers.
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the Democrats may not pay a political cost if they can stop redistricting and return to consider the other major issues pending this session.
"Then these are Democrats returning to Democratic constituencies and saying, 'We stopped those nasty Republicans but we got the business of the state done.' If they can do that, they come out fine. But if major issues like passing the budget gets stalled and don't get done, then the Republicans can blame the Democrats and they may pay more of a cost," he said.
Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Democrats probably acted out of frustration, with no other options and the reminder of the famous Texas "Killer Bees" walkout
"They have been trumped, stumped and thwarted at every turn," he said. "They feel like this redistricting thing is a cheap shot under the circumstances, so they figure it justified extraordinary action."