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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Fifty-five fugitive Democrats returned to the Texas Capitol in triumph Friday after thwarting a Republican redistricting bill by running off to Oklahoma for nearly a week.

"Welcome home, Texas heroes," one sign read as the lawmakers, all from the Texas House, arrived, smiling and waving to a cheering crowd.

During the political drama, the runaway lawmakers stayed at a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma, ate at a Denny's and took cell phone calls around the pool.

"We've weathered some troopers, we've weathered a tornado and we weathered Denny's," said Rep. Jim Dunnum, the group's ringleader. "No matter what happens, democracy won."

The lawmakers slipped away Sunday night in an extraordinary revolt that brought the Texas House to a standstill because there were not enough lawmakers for a quorum to do business.

Democrats said it was the only way to stop a congressional redistricting plan was being ramrodded through the GOP-controlled House at the behest of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The redistricting was aimed at grabbing five House seats from the Democrats in 2004.

GOP officials ridiculed the rebellion, pasting the missing lawmakers' pictures on milk cartons and creating playing cards likening the Democrats to most-wanted Iraqis.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick angrily asked the Texas Rangers to track down and bring in the Democrats, but authorities said they could do nothing once the lawmakers crossed the Red River into Oklahoma. Even the Homeland Security Department was drawn into the fray after a Texas law officer called up, hinting that a plane full of Democrats might have crashed.

In the end, the redistricting bill died at midnight Thursday under the legislative rules as the Democrats were on their way back from the Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla.

They trooped into the House on Friday to loud applause from the gallery as their Republican colleagues sat quietly at their desks.

There was a quorum — at least 100 of the 150 House members — at last.

"It's good to be back," state Rep. Garnet Coleman said. "We're tired and we slept some. And we should be ready to continue working on the floor today. We have bills on the calendar."

Eighteen days remain in the session. Democratic Rep. Aaron Pena said some Democrats were getting a "chilly reception" but most of the Republicans have been gracious.

Redistricting may not be dead yet this year: Republican Gov. Rick Perry has the option of calling a special session, in which redistricting could be addressed.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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