AUSTIN — Pressure among breakaway House Democrats to maintain their boycott of legislative business in Austin intensified Wednesday after a San Antonio member came back from Washington, saying he’s trying to negotiate changes in a controversial elections bill.

Denying quorum is now a numbers game.

House Republican leaders hailed the return of Democratic Rep. Philip Cortez, suggesting that they now have 91 of the 100 members they need to re-establish a quorum and resume work.

“We’re getting closer every day,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Jim Murphy of Houston. Because it takes time to pass bills, the Legislature needs a quorum and fast, Murphy said, appealing again for Democratic House members to return to Austin.

“We’re kind of on the bubble right now, time wise and number wise,” he said.

But runaway Democrats who’ve stalled passage of the GOP voting measure disputed suggestions that their unity is eroding — and repeated that they’re determined to hold out. The special session must end no later than Aug. 6.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner of Grand Prairie noted that 56 of 57 Democrats who last week sent letters asking that their voting machines remain locked are sticking with the plan to stay away from the state and lobby for federal voting legislation.

“There are clearly more than enough Democratic House members committed to staying out of Austin to stop the Republican efforts to undermine the freedom to vote,” he said. Turner acknowledged he didn’t know in advance of the plan by Cortez, who had signed one of the letters, to return.

“Everyone I have talked to fully plans to stay strong and unified,” said Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton.

Still, Cortez’s decision to return caught many Democrats by surprise. Cortez told The Dallas Morning News he’s part of a small group of Democrats, both in Washington D.C. and Austin, negotiating with the bill’s Republican author to “improve the bill language.” Cortez said he returned to Austin this week as a sign of good faith in the ongoing discussions — a plan that was not shared in advance with the entire Democratic caucus.

“It’s important that we have multiple tracks on this issue,” he told The News . “Whether this bill is addressed now or whether it’s addressed in a potential next special session, we need to make sure we have Democratic input.”

It remains to be seen whether his departure will drive a wedge in the Democratic caucus, whose power in the GOP-led Legislature rests in its numbers. Cortez said Rep. John Turner, a Dallas Democrat who has been in Austin the whole time, is involved in the negotiations, but he declined to name the others. Turner could not be reached for comment.

Dallas Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchía downplayed the effect of Cortez’s move, which came a day after Houston Democrat Harold Dutton returned to Austin.

“Members are united to protect the freedom to vote for all Texans,” Anchía said. “We continue to make our case on Capitol Hill and have been working with national voting rights experts to come up with policies that make voting safe and accessible.”

But some of Cortez’s colleagues expressed disappointment about his decision to return and made clear he is not negotiating on behalf of the entire group.

“He made the decision to rejoin Republicans without speaking to the Dem delegation,” Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats on Thursday suggested they want to negotiate with Gov. Greg Abbott for a piece of legislation that “makes sense for all Texans.”

Earlier this month the group offered up its own elections overhaul proposal , which would usher in online and same-day voter registration, allow all voters to request mail-in ballots, expand the early voting period, permit additional documents to be used as voter ID and make Election Day a state holiday.

“All tools are still on the table,” Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas said at a Capitol press conference Wednesday. “What we prefer to do is to sit down with the governor and come up with something that’s going to be agreeable to all Texans.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, speaking later at his own press conference, said he welcomes Democrats to the table, but only if they drop their attacks that the bill makes it hard to vote — a contention he says is unsupported. Patrick said he’d like to see a constitutional amendment passed that would reduce the size of required quorums — two-thirds of each chamber. Most states have a smaller threshold, he said. Eventually, he said, the elections bill will pass.

“At the end of the day, this bill is going to pass, pretty much in the form it’s in,” said Patrick, a Republican. “We’re always willing to listen if they have suggestions that we think don’t change the focus of the bill. But this bill is going to pass.”

Murphy, though, said time is growing short for getting constitutional amendments passed by the Legislature and placed on the Nov. 2 ballot. He was speaking of a constitutional amendment needed for another special session item, overhaul of bail-setting procedures. But it would apply also to Patrick’s bid to shrink the size of required quorums.

“There’s a garage door closing,” Murphy said. “Ballots need to be prepared sometime in August, for the November [constitutional amendment] election because of early voting, mail-in ballots military voting, all of that. So we need to get the constitutional amendment out of here pretty quickly.”

On staunchly conservative Newsmax cable TV channel, Abbott continued to pummel the missing House Democrats, calling their boycott “a stunt” that’s certain to fail. Abbott has vowed to keep calling special sessions, right up until next year’s election, to get the voting bill, bail changes and several red-meat items for social conservatives passed.

“They’ve accomplished nothing -- other than maybe, perhaps infecting others with COVID,” he said on Spicer and Co.

Abbott was referring to how six of the Democrats in Washington have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days. Aides to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden may have become infected after visiting with the Texas Democrats.