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Redistricting delayed in Texas again

AUSTIN, Texas -- With a big Texas football weekend underway, House Democrats took advantage of low legislative attendance and again broke a quorum in their battle to block congressional redistricting.

The legislators' disappearance Friday night meant the House, which already had approved a Republican redistricting bill, could not vote on a government reorganization bill some senators supported. Senate Republicans had refused to vote on the redistricting measure until the House passed the unrelated bill.

When word of the Senate plan began to spread, most House Democrats bolted before a vote on the other bill was called, banking on enough Republicans leaving town for the Texas-Oklahoma football game to break quorum.

After attempts to round up the fleeing legislators failed, the House ultimately adjourned until this afternoon.

So Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Senate Republicans decided to wait to vote on the new congressional district boundaries that favor the GOP.

Both the House and Senate are expected to meet today in what could be the redistricting finale in the Legislature.

There was optimism that the House would have a quorum today, said Bob Richter, spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, yesterday.

"The fear is if the Senate monkeys around and doesn't pass this thing, you take a chance on a filibuster or a Senate walkout," Richter said of the redistricting battle.

But Dewhurst said senators can only vote on redistricting today, not filibuster, because he has closed down debate.

The weekend delay was another twist in the six-month redistricting saga that included a quorum bust by 51 House Democrats who fled to Ardmore, Okla., in May, and another by 11 senators who traveled to Albuquerque over the summer.

"We never gave up and we never will," Representative Garnet Coleman, one of the most vocal of the Democrats, said yesterday.

Democrats hold a 17-to-15 edge in the state's congressional delegation and want to keep district lines that were drawn by a court in 2001. Republicans, citing the state's increasingly conservative voting trends, said they should have the majority in the delegation.

The House-Senate redistricting compromise plan reached by Republicans with the help of US House majority leader Tom DeLay would probably give the GOP six or seven more seats.

Democrats contend the plan will hurt minorities and rural Texans. They intend to mount a court challenge.

House Democrats walked out late Friday, even though they were present for the final House redistricting vote earlier in the day, because they decided they had better things to do, Coleman said.

Some of the legislators had weekend trips arranged. Others wanted to spend time with their families, he said.

It was well known that some House Republicans were heading to Dallas on Friday for the football game yesterday and parties and fund-raisers coinciding with it. So the Democrats left.

The Democrats' walkout occurred after legislators read aloud an e-mail from an aide to US Representative Joe Barton that ridiculed Democrats and gloated over the Republicans' expected victory.

Barton's legislative counsel, Joby Fortson, sent the e-mail from his personal computer, Barton's office said Friday. It was forwarded to Democrats in Austin and Washington and to members of the news media.

"As much as we despise her, she cannot be drawn out . . . the Queen lives!!!!" Fortson wrote about Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, whose Houston district remains Democratic.

Barton spokeswoman Samantha Jordan said the e-mail "certainly in no way is reflective" of the congressman's thinking. She said Barton has not decided whether to take disciplinary action.

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