Todd J. Gillman
The Dallas Morning News
Updated at 11:20 a.m. with details from the White House
WASHINGTON – The Texas Democrats who fled Austin have spent the last eight nights at a hotel a half-mile from the White House, and they’re growing a bit impatient for an invitation to meet with President Joe Biden.
“We know the president is watching and we’re waiting for him to call,” said state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D- San Antonio. “We are willing and ready to meet with him whenever he would like that.”
But that possibility grew even more remote Tuesday after a revelation, first reported by Axios, that aides to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the president tested positive for COVID-19 after spending time around the runaway legislators, six of whom have tested positive since Friday.
The Pelosi staffer ushered the Texans around the Capitol last week and a number of aides in that office were working remotely on Tuesday.
“There has not been a meeting planned and there hasn’t been a change to that,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, confirming that a “fully vaccinated White House official” tested positive on Monday and is experiencing mild symptoms. A contract tracing effort showed no exposure to the president, vice president or senior officials.
As for the president’s message to the Texans, she added: “Thanks for standing up for voting rights and the rights of Americans to have our voices heard at the voting booth, and we appreciate your efforts in that regard.”
Everyone stricken so far – the six lawmakers and the aides to Pelosi and Biden – was fully vaccinated. That should confer protection against any serious illness, and mute the potential for contagion.
“We’re still working diligently through the COVID protocols that we’ve already set in place,” said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, referring to daily tests for lawmakers and aides since Saturday, when the first three tested positive.
But the White House takes the health of the 78-year-old president very seriously.
Rapid tests are mandatory for journalists and others who enter the Oval Office or other meeting rooms with Biden or Harris. Until June 7, testing was required for anyone entering the White House complex, whether they might be in proximity to the president or not.
That requirement has since been lifted for people who are fully vaccinated.
But White House protocols still aim to keep out anyone recently exposed. And the 55 Texas Democrats have become potential vectors since fleeing Austin. Republicans point to photos of them aboard a flight to Washington, none wearing a mask – technically allowed because it was a chartered flight, but a violation of CDC guidelines.
“The White House is prepared for breakthrough cases with regular testing. This is another reminder of the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines against severe illness or hospitalizations and of course we wish our colleague, a speedy recovery,” Psaki said.
The Democrats fled to break quorum in the Texas House, halting an elections bill demanded by Gov. Greg Abbott that they view as voter suppression.
“Of course we would love to visit with the president,” Minjarez told reporters. “We had the opportunity to meet with the Vice President, and we have made our concerns known, the sense of urgency involved.”
MSNBC devoted an hour on Monday night to the fugitives. In deference to the outbreak, they appeared remotely rather than in-studio as planned.
“Even though we’re not doing as many in-person visits, we’re still having many meetings via Zoom. We’re still doing everything that we can to get our message out there,” Reynolds said. “We’re working very diligently. We’re being very creative and innovative.”
The group will meet Tuesday with U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn.
U.S. Rep. Al Green of Houston led a letter to Biden last week signed by all 13 Democrats in Congress asking for him to meet with the runaways from the Legislature. Reynolds noted that Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, another Houston congressperson, has also been prodding the White House to set that up.
“We are optimistic that we will get a meeting with President Biden very, very soon,” Reynolds said.
The Texans have used their time in Washington to lobby senators for stalled federal legislation that would supersede state-level elections laws, and reimpose Justice Department scrutiny before Texas and other states with histories of discrimination could move a polling site, redraw district lines or make other changes that might impede minority voters. The Supreme Court ended that scrutiny in 2013, ruling that Congress would have to update the formula used to assess whether prior sins still justified such federal oversight.
The Texas Democrats argue that Senate Bill 7, which they killed with a walkout in the regular session in late May, and the updated version that Abbott and allies are pushing, are precisely the sort of attack that the landmark Voting Rights Act was intended to protect against.
“These bills are the fire hoses and unleashed dogs of today,” said state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D- Fort Worth. “They give a green light to insurrectionists to become poll watchers.”
For the second day in a row, the Texans spent their morning hearing from advocates for minority and voting rights.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, recounted President Donald Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census to deter if not eliminate minority participation. When courts shot that down, Trump sought to create a nationwide database and subtract non-citizens from state tallies when it came time to reapportion U.S. House seats.
“The follow-up to that attempt at statistical genocide is what you’re seeing today in these efforts across the country to limit participation in voting,” Saenz said.
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