A federal court sent a message Friday that the Texas primaries shouldn't be pushed past April because of bitterly disputed voting maps and ordered the state and minority rights groups to spend the weekend back at the bargaining table.
The fate of the Texas primaries, which have already been postponed once and risk being held too late to matter in the Republican presidential race, could be decided early as Tuesday by the San Antonio court. The primaries are currently scheduled for April 3, though that date appears all but dead.
The goal now is putting temporary voting maps in place quickly enough so the primaries are delayed only weeks, not months. A court deadline for a compromise passed this week with only a partial deal, after a coalition of minority rights groups suing the state over maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature splintered during talks.
In a one-page court order issued late Friday, the three-judge panel made it clear they had no appetite for further delays.
"It is the Court's desire to have redistricting plans in place for an April primary and all parties must continue their negotiations to assist the Court in accomplishing that task," U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia wrote.
Minority groups that balked at the Texas attorney general's latest offer said they would negotiate in good faith, but also acknowledged that both sides remain far apart.
"We have yet to reach the stage in our discussions with the attorney general where we feel we are making progress toward a resolution," said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Conference. "But at a minimum we might be able to eliminate some of the objections we have by talking to the other side to get them to compromise on their map."
April 17 or April 24 is widely viewed as the most realistic new dates for a primary if new maps are put in place soon enough.
The sudden urgency to settle on maps that both Republicans and Democrats can live with for the 2012 elections belies an intense redistricting fight that has dragged on since last summer. That was when nine plaintiffs, mostly minority groups, sued the state, claiming that GOP mapmakers intentionally drew new political lines to dilute minority voting strength.
How the maps are drawn have national ramifications. Texas was awarded four new congressional seats following the 2010 census, and whether they go Democrat or Republican could affect the balance of power in the U.S. House.
Minority groups and Democrats say the population boom in Texas was driven by nearly 3 million new Hispanic residents over the last decade but that those numbers weren't reflected in how the Legislature redrew districts statewide.
Under a partial compromise reached this week, the state agreed to make two of the four new congressional seats Hispanic-opportunity districts. That, combined with other adjustments, was good enough to satisfy Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
But the majority of the plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit said the offer still wasn't good enough. Martinez said talks with the state were ongoing even before Friday's court order.
The three-judge panel clearly favors a compromise over drawing the maps themselves. Garcia wrote that even if both sides show up to court Tuesday without a deal, they should plan to start talking again when the hearing is over.
Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general's office, did not immediately comment.
Associated Press Writer Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.