WASHINGTON — The floor of the Texas House was a quiet place Tuesday despite the fact that business is pending in the state Legislature.
Senate Republicans who make up 88 of the 150 seats in the House had wanted to vote on a redistricting plan that would likely have saved several Republican congressional seats and possibly could lead to an increase in the number of Republicans elected to the U.S. Congress.
But more than 50 House Democrats would have none of it, and in a surprise — and illegal — move, they went into hiding in a hotel/command center in neighboring Oklahoma, defying House rules that say lawmakers cannot intentionally miss a quorum call.
"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, pointing the finger at U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The diversion started Sunday night when 58 Texas Democrats slipped across the Red River to take up temporary residence at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla. On Monday, Republican Gov. Rick Perry sent the Texas Rangers to Ardmore to arrest and escort the AWOL Democrats back to Austin, a move allowed under the Texas Constitution.
However, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, prevented the retrieval, saying the Texas Rangers had no jurisdiction inside the Sooner State. Trooper pleas to the lawmakers to return voluntarily failed.
On Tuesday, the troopers did find one Democrat, Rep. Helen Giddings, who while supporting her colleagues, agreed to return to the Legislature to take care of business. She was escorted by police car back to the Capitol building. Others also returned of their own will, leaving 51 at large, one shy of the quorum call of 100.
Democrats say they should not be required to redraw district lines, particularly after a federal court drew Texas' congressional districts when state lawmakers failed to do so in 2001. They say it is a non-districting year.
"Congressman DeLay is wrong to upset a process that should be left to deal with every 10 years. We believe we are right in our efforts to stop him," Raymond said of DeLay's redistricting plan.
DeLay, who wants to turn around the 17-15 Democratic majority in the state's congressional delegation, said he has never seen lawmakers turn tail and hide when legislation wasn't going their way.
"I think this is outrageous, particularly for Texans, to turn and run from a good fight. This is about the Constitution and their responsibility to redistrict and apportion according to the Constitution, Article 1, Section 2. It is very specific."
By law, the state Legislature is allowed to revisit the court's decision in off years. Despite his aggravation, DeLay did have some fun with the turn of events, passing out an altered photo of the hotel Democrats were staying in with the Texas Statehouse dome morphed on top.
"We don't act like Texas legislators but we did stay at the Holiday Inn Express," the caption reads.
State House Republicans also had some fun while they waited. They quickly printed up a deck of playing cards featuring pictures of the missing Democrats. A pair of milk cartons circulated around the chamber, plastered with the faces of missing Democrats.
Still, a subdued House Speaker Tom Craddick said there is no room for negotiations on the vote.
"It is a state's right to redistrict. We weren't allowed that right the last session of the Legislature by a Democrat-controlled speaker and a Democratic-controlled Legislature," Craddick said.
If lawmakers miss the Thursday deadline for preliminary votes in the House, any legislation that comes to the floor will need a two-thirds vote to pass. Several major bills, including a budget-balancing government reorganization proposal, could fall victim to the deadline.
Late Tuesday, State Republican Chairman Susan Weddington wrote Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to ask him to investigate if any of the meetings in Oklahoma were in violation of state law.
"Unfortunately, news reports indicate that the group has been discussing legislative matters. There is a concern that these discussions may actually be a violation of the Open Meetings Laws, because it appears the members on the House Committees on Pensions and Investments, and Land and Resource Management have a majority of their members present, thus producing a quorum," she wrote.
Democrats denied that any of their conduct in Oklahoma fell under the category of House business.
Despite the legal wrangling, Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost said he hailed the Democrats for their courage.
"They are doing the right thing. They are in the best Texas tradition. They are heroes."
State Rep. Pete Gallago expressed surprise as well at the impact of the caucus' actions.
"This has been a tremendous bonding experience for those of us who are here. It is not an easy thing to get over 50 members of the Legislature to agree on lunch, much less to agree on a trip to our neighboring state of Oklahoma," he said.
Oklahoma Gov. Henry said the lawmakers were welcome to stay as long as they like, saying their business is good for the state's economy.
This is not the first time lawmakers have gone into hiding in Texas. Twenty-four years ago, 12 state senators hid out in defiance of Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. They became known as the "Killer Bees" and they hid out in a garage in Austin and played poker while Texas Rangers scoured the state looking for them.
Fox News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Wanted dead or alive.