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Texas lawmakers take up limits on voting, abortion in special session

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Voting rights activists gather during a protest against Texas legislators who are advancing a slew of new voting restrictions in Austin, Texas, U.S., May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Mikala Compton

July 8 (Reuters) - Texas lawmakers kicked off a special session on Thursday to consider a range of Republican-backed measures, including voting restrictions that Democratic members previously blocked in a dramatic legislative walkout.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott has also instructed state lawmakers to consider bills that would block transgender students from competing in athletics that correspond with their gender identity, fund arrests of immigrants living in the country illegally, restrict abortion access and limit teaching about the role of racism in the United States.

Republican-controlled legislatures across the country have passed similar measures in recent months in an effort to push back against Democratic President Joe Biden’s agenda and satisfy diehard supporters of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. read more

"We have unfinished business to ensure that Texas remains the most exceptional state in America," Abbott said on Wednesday as he released the agenda for the special session.

James Slattery, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, called Abbott's agenda a "carnival-esque" political maneuver that ignored the state's most pressing crises, such as deadly power grid failures that left 4.3 million people without heat for days during a February cold snap.

On May 30, just before the end of the state's regular legislative session, Democratic lawmakers denied Republicans the quorum needed to pass an election bill that critics said would have made it harder for Blacks and Hispanics to vote. read more

The measure would have limited early voting hours, added new identification requirements for absentee voting and banned ballot drop boxes.

The boycott marked a notable victory for Democrats, who have unsuccessfully fought a slew of similar laws passed since the beginning of the year in states where, like in Texas, Republicans control both the state legislature and the governor's office. read more

But Texas Republicans are likely to pass the elections bill, now known as SB 1, in the special session that could last up to 30 days. Hearings on the bill will begin on Saturday, according to a tweet from Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

Supporters of the legislation say it is needed to bolster election security. The country's second-most-populous state already has some of the most restrictive electoral laws in the United States.

'DELAY TACTICS'

State Representative Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, called Abbott's effort to erect more voting barriers "shameful" and told a news conference on Thursday that Democratic lawmakers were "ready to fight against these bad policies for as long as it takes."

James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Democrats would likely use procedural rules to slow down the bill's passage but that it was unlikely they would be able to block it entirely with another walkout.

"What is the endgame of that tactic? Delay tactics are not an infinite tactic in this kind of circumstance," Henson said.

Voting rights advocates plan to rally outside the statehouse on Monday and lobby lawmakers to oppose the voting restrictions, according to Anthony Gutierrez, Texas director of Common Cause.

Fighting voter suppression is a priority for Biden, who met with civil rights groups on Thursday to discuss their efforts to protect voting rights, according to a Democratic official.

Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Biden has assigned to lead the administration's work in that area, said on Thursday the Democratic National Committee would invest $25 million in a campaign to register, protect and educate U.S. voters.

Reporting by Julia Harte; Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney
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