Runaway Texas Democrats derailed as outbreak spreads to White House, Pelosi office

The Texas House Democrats framed their walkout as a bid to save democracy, but the message was swamped by a growing coronavirus outbreak that spilled Tuesday into the House speaker’s office.

A Pelosi spokesperson confirmed that a fully vaccinated senior aide tested positive for COVID-19 after contact with the state legislators, the darlings of the Democratic beau monde until four days ago, when they started testing positive for coronavirus infection.

Now six members, or more than 10%, of the caucus have contracted COVID-19, fueling a White House scare, eclipsing the civil rights narrative, jeopardizing their chances of meeting President Biden and prompting Republicans to accuse the legislators of stoking a superspreader event.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected the “superspreader” label. She said that was “not a characterization we’re making here” and praised the Texas Democrats for drawing attention to H.R. 1, the far-reaching Democratic elections bill stuck in the Senate.

“Our message continues to be ‘thanks for standing up for voting rights and the rights of Americans to have their voice heard at the voting booth,’ and we appreciate their efforts in that regard,” Ms. Psaki said at the White House press briefing Tuesday.

At this point, however, the nearly 60 Texas House Democrats who absconded from the state July 12 to break quorum and prevent an elections bill from passing the Republican-controlled House may have become more of a liability than an asset.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called the trip a disaster, and Travis County [Texas] Republican Party Chairman Matt Mackowiak tweeted that a “farce that became a super spreader event now becomes a national security event.”

Ms. Psaki confirmed that a fully vaccinated White House official tested positive Monday. Vice President Kamala Harris tested negative Sunday after her July 13 meeting with the Texas House Democrats.

The official, who is not a commissioned officer, “remains off campus as they wait for a confirmatory PCR test,” the White House statement said. “The White House Medical Unit has conducted contact tracing interviews and determined no close contacts among White House principals and staff. The individual has mild symptoms.”

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, suggested that the Lone Star legislators consider themselves lucky that they aren’t conservatives.

“Imagine if 50 GOP state reps skipped work, drank beer on a private jet while ignoring federal mask mandates, held a press conference to spread flagrant lies that’ve been debunked, and then infected the Speaker’s Office and White House with COVID. Just imagine,”  Mr. Crenshaw tweeted.

Dogging the Democrats are selfies that show them aboard the chartered jets without masks, even though the Transportation Security Administration requires passengers on U.S. commercial flights to wear facial coverings.

About 48.9% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic vaccine tracker, but COVID-19 cases have surged in recent weeks, pushed by the delta variant.

Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican, tweeted, “How many infections qualifies as a #superspreader and at what point do we call this the #TexasVariant?”

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the senior aide who tested positive Monday after meeting last week with the Texas Democrat has had no contact with the speaker.

“Yesterday, a fully vaccinated senior spokesperson in the Speaker’s Press Office tested positive for COVID after contact with members of the Texas state legislature last week,” Mr. Hammill said in an email.

“This individual has had no contact with the speaker since exposure,” he said. “The entire Press Office is working remotely today with the exception of individuals who have had no exposure to the individual or have had a recent negative test. Our office will continue to follow the guidance of the Office of Attending Physician closely.”

Other Democrats have also been tested after meeting with the Texas lawmakers, who cut a wide swath through the nation’s capital with frequent press conferences, receptions and meetings with fellow Democrats from the House and Senate.

Reps. Marc Veasey and Lloyd Doggett, Texas Republicans, were the first to appear publicly with the state legislators. The lawmakers hosted the delegation from their home state at a Capitol Hill press conference the day after they flew to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Both congressmen have tested negative for the coronavirus, their staff said.

Veasey spokeswoman Emily Druckman said Tuesday that “Rep. Veasey has taken a test and received a negative result.”

Same with Mr. Doggett. “He tested negative yesterday,” Doggett spokeswoman Kate Stotesbery said in an email.

Other Democratic lawmakers who met last week with the caucus members on voting rights include Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Manchin spokesman Sam Runyon said the senator was “not exposed to any members who tested positive.”

All six of the Texas Democrats who contracted COVID-19 had been fully vaccinated, according to the caucus, raising questions about the rising number of breakthrough cases involving those who have received two vaccines.

Ms. Psaki said “there will be breakthrough cases” but the fully vaccinated are better protected against serious illness, hospitalizations and death.

“Even vaccines that are incredibly effective are not foolproof,” she said. “They are not 100% effective. We’ve seen that.”

The Texas House Democrats did not release the names of caucus members infected with the virus, but the three who have gone public said they were experiencing mild symptoms.

State Rep. Donna Howard identified herself Tuesday as the sixth member to test positive.

“Despite following [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and being fully vaccinated, I tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday,” Ms. Howard said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. She said she was “basically asymptomatic except for some minor congestion.”

The Texas legislators have said they will remain in Washington until the special session concludes on Aug. 6, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has vowed to keep calling 30-day special sessions until his legislative priorities are approved.

The Democrats have denounced the elections bill as a voter-suppression measure. Republicans say the legislation is needed to ensure election integrity and combat ballot-harvesting.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has chartered a flight back to Austin for the Democrats, which they have refused to accept.

“The Speaker should save his money. We won’t be needing a plane anytime soon, as our work to save democracy from the Trump Republicans is just getting started,” the caucus said in a Thursday statement.

• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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