AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Texas Republicans on Saturday night closed in on redrawn U.S. House maps that would shore up their eroding dominance as voters peel away from the GOP in the state's booming suburbs.
In a key late-night vote in the Texas House, Republicans gave early sign-off to new congressional boundaries that would give them more breathing room after some close calls in 2018 and 2020, while also opening a new path for the GOP along the border with Mexico.
But in a preview of legal challenges to come, Democrats spent hours blasting the maps as discriminatory and all but blind to the state's surging number of Latino residents, who made up more than half of the nearly 4 million new Texans over the past decade. Many live around Dallas and Houston, where under the GOP-engineered maps, there would be no new districts that give Latinos a majority.
Republican state Rep. Todd Hunter, who has presided over the redrawn maps in the House, defended the changes and said they comply with the law.
The maps will still need final negotiations in the coming days between the House and Senate before being sent to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign them.
The redrawn congressional districts would make make it easier for many incumbents to hold their seats, but critics say they also threaten Black and Hispanic communities' political influence, even as those voters drive Texas' growth. The new lines, the product of a once-in-a-decade redistricting process, create two new districts and make several less competitive for Republican lawmakers.
Texas was the only state to gain two congressional seats following the 2020 census, which showed that people of color accounted for more than 9 of 10 new residents in Texas.
"Race is clearly the factor here," Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia said of how the maps were drawn. "Not partisanship, but rather race."
One revision by the Texas House during hours of debate Saturday would increase the number of Hispanic voters in two districts, but those changes must still make it through another round of approval.
Democrats and voting rights advocates are preparing to challenge the maps in court in what would be yet another high-profile, high-stakes legal battle over Texas politics -- already the epicenter of disputes over abortion and voting rights.
Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature have nearly complete control of the mapmaking process. They are working from maps that experts and courts have already declared as gerrymandered in their favor, and the state has had to defend their maps in court after every redistricting process since the Voting Rights Act took effect in 1965.
But legal challenges face new hurdles this round -- the first since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination no longer need to have the Justice Department scrutinize the maps before they are approved. Plaintiffs must now wait to file claims and must show that maps were intentionally meant to discriminate by race. Drawing maps to engineer a political advantage is not unconstitutional.
Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, who authored the maps and leads the Senate Redistricting Committee, has told lawmakers they were "drawn blind to race." She said her legal team ensured the proposal followed the Voting Rights Act.
The proposal would make 24 of the state's 38 congressional districts safe Republican districts, with an opportunity to pick up at least one additional newly redrawn Democratic stronghold on the border with Mexico, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data from last year's election collected by the Texas Legislative Council. Currently, Republicans hold 23 of the state's 36 seats.
Republicans with newly fortified advantages include Rep. Van Taylor, whose district in Dallas' exurbs went for President Donald Trump by a single percentage point last year. Under the new maps, Trump would have won the district by double-digits.
Rep. Michael McCaul, who Democrats aggressively targeted the last two cycles, would now represent a solidly pro-Trump district under lines that exclude Houston's suburbs and liberal parts of Austin.
And a long, vertically drawn district stretching from the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio that President Joe Biden won by just over 2 percentage points would now slightly tilt toward Trump voters.
In a late-night win for Democrats, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who is serving her 14th term, had her home drawn back into her Houston district, which was restored nearly entirely to its former shape. So, too, was the nearby district of U.S. Rep. Al Green after both had seen longtime constituents of minority communities drawn out of their districts.
Texas lawmakers are also redrawing the maps for their own districts, with Republicans following a similar plan that would keep their party in power in the state House and Senate. Those proposals are also expected to be sent to Abbott by next week.