By Jack Fink

AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – For the second day, Speaker Dade Phelan gaveled in, but that and the prayer were the only official business in the Texas House Wednesday while Democrats are in Washington, D.C.

Lawmakers asked about reciting the pledge to the American and Texas flags, but Phelan explained they weren’t allowed to do that under the rules.

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But House members, including Phelan, and others in the chamber and gallery began reciting the pledges anyway.

Even though the full House and committees can’t consider any bills, there was still plenty of debate — via dueling news conferences — about what’s actually in the election integrity bills.

The Senate approved its bill, SB 1, Tuesday by a 18-4 margin along party lines.

The Senate still has a quorum even though nine Senate Democrats went to Washington.

Members of the Senate Republican Caucus, including Sen. Bryan Hughes of Tyler, the bill’s author, said their legislation expands early voting hours all week. “Texas offers weekend voting, offers extended hours to vote. Texas leads the nation in opportunity to vote. Those are the facts. Now, what does this bill do? It makes it easier to vote in Texas.”

Hughes also said the measure includes other first-time provisions. “SB 1 says that during early voting, your employer has got to let you off to vote. We’ve had that protection for election day but never before early voting.”

In addition, he said just like election day, if you’re in line during early voting before the polls close, you will be able to vote.

That’s not in the law now.

Those who vote by mail will now have time to correct any errors they make on their ballot.

But because Republicans say they want to standardize the rules statewide, their bill doesn’t allow drive-thru and 24-hour voting as Harris County provided during the 2020 election.

Democrats support the Harris County effort and say SB 1 is wrong.

During a news conference featuring Texas House and Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol Thursday, Sen. Royce West of Dallas said Republicans should allow the Harris County provisions another chance. “If there are problems associated with that particular method of voting, don’t say we shouldn’t have it on the books as a method, but we should look at what the problems are and solve the problems associated with it but make it more accessible.”

During an interview earlier in the day, State Sen. Nathan Johnson of Dallas, who also went to Washington, said the state should not standardize the rules. “What business is it of the state trying to control them? This is a totalitarian approach of state control over local officials whose job it is to facilitate elections.”

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Democrats said they want the state to implement a way for people to register to vote online.

Sen. Hughes was asked about that during the Republican news conference at the Texas Capitol, and he said, “Texas now has online voter registration for the first time as of the first of this year. That’s something new.”

But according to an elections official, the only way it’s possible to register to vote online is if people who are already in the Texas Department of Public Safety database are updating their drivers licenses.

Sen. Johnson said, “What I’d like to see the In these negotiations in these dialogues, and I think there’s some hope, is provisions of the bill that will actually make it easier to vote like online voter registration. My gosh, we can’t we can’t do that. Surely we can do that.”

Because the House remains at a standstill, the Senate bill will die.

The special session is set to end Aug. 7.

Sen. Nelson was asked why not return to Texas to debate Republicans.

He said he would next month, when Gov. Greg Abbott would likely call another special session.

House Republicans are set to return at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Speaker Phelan asked the Democrats who went to Washington to return their daily $221 stipend.

At least one lawmaker, Michelle Beckley of Carrollton announced she will give back the stipend and won’t receive it while she’s not in Austin.

Sen. Johnson said the trip to Washington is being paid for by political funds, not taxpayers’ dollars.

He said that includes funds his campaign raised but that he wasn’t sure where else the money came from.

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Full Interview With State Sen. Nathan Johnson