Republican desks remain empty as the caucus has mounted a walkout to protest the Democrats' agenda. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)
Tensions are mounting and so is a backlog of legislation as the Oregon Senate stands idle while its Republican members remain in hiding.
The coordinated disappearance by Republicans, which stretched into its fourth day Friday, is intended to stop Democrats from passing major legislation Republicans oppose. Their immediate concerns are a tax plan to fund education and legislation eliminating non-medical exemptions to required vaccines for children.
The Senate was scheduled to pass the tax bill – but then Republicans revolted.
There are 18 Democratic state senators this year, two shy of the 20-person quorum needed to pass legislation. One of the 12 Republican senators, Tim Knopp of Bend, has continued to show up for the now-brief daily sessions, but he has seated himself at the rear of the chamber and not at his desk.
Knopp would need the company of one more Republican senator for the Senate to get to work.
The Senate for the first time convened on a Friday, as Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, sought action. He didn’t get it.
Before adjourning, Courtney asked for a moment of silence among the senators that did show up to reflect on how lawmakers are elected to pass public policy benefitting all Oregonians, despite the tribulations the assembly faces.
A minority caucus avoiding the Capitol to deny a quorum is an unusual strategy, but it’s one that both parties in Oregon have used within the past 20 years. House Democrats walked out in 2001 to prevent Republicans from approving new legislative district boundaries. In 2007, Senate Republicans attempted to boycott a vote on a corporate tax bill, although they gave in after Courtney sent police to collect wayward senators.
So far, this walkout hasn’t had much of an impact on the rest of the building, aside from being a distraction with the daily ritual of will-they-or-won’t-they. Committees are still meeting and lobbyists say they are still getting meetings with Republican senators.
The political stare down is over House Bill 3427, the Student Success Act, but its implications stretch beyond that.
The only real damage is the backlog building up in the Senate as committees continue to forward legislation for a final vote. Some of those bills still need to work their way through the House once cleared out of the Senate. The jam could lead to night and weekend sessions once Republicans return.
“I think there is a feeling amongst people that, hey, we’re getting farther and farther behind,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay.
House Republicans have employed a less dramatic approach to putting a political stick in the wheels of the Legislature.
For the past two weeks, they’ve been requiring bills to be read in full on the House floor before a vote. While that’s slowed down the rate at which the House passes legislation, it hasn’t kept the House from meeting.
“We're still doing our work,” Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, said. “Our House Republicans are still showing up for work. We can still pass bills, but it means that anything we're sending over to that side is going to get piled up.”
House Democrats’ spokesman Aaron Fiedler said there is “bubbling frustration” over the walkout, in part because voters endorsed increased education spending when electing Democrats in November.
“This D.C.-style shutdown is disheartening,” he said.
Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said termed it inappropriate for minority lawmakers to walk off the job.
“They have a responsibility to the people who elected them to not just take their toys and go home,” Smith Warner said.
The Republicans haven’t shared their strategy and on Friday, Senate Republican spokeswoman Kate Gillem declined to discuss it.
The senators reportedly put together a demand list, insisting that most of the key Democratic initiatives be spiked or diluted. The demands fluctuated through the week as Courtney tried to negotiate a resolution.
On Friday, Knopp said he doesn’t know how long the strike will last.
“If a deal isn’t worked out, I think we are in for a much longer stalemate,” Knopp said.
The two sides have been in “up and down” negotiations daily, Courtney said.
But Democratic leaders have repeatedly said they won’t give in to Republican demands.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, told OPB on Wednesday that Democrats would pull back a gun control bill “over (her) dead body.” That stance applies to the cap-and-trade bill as well, she told the Oregon Capital Bureau on Thursday.
“We campaigned on these issues,” Burdick said. “We got elected on these issues. And if they disagree with us on these issues, the proper place is to exercise their advocacy in this building.”
If Republicans don’t give in, there aren’t many options on the table.
Courtney has been having the sergeant-at-arms sweep the third and fourth floors of the Capitol, where Republican senators have their offices, during each roll call. Leta Edwards and assistant Michael Ketsdever each take a floor, checking into each senator’s office and asking any aides they see if the senator has been in the Capitol that day.
Edwards said it’s essentially a formality, as she knows the 11 senators aren’t in the building.
“They’re purposely nowhere that we can easily find them,” Edwards said.
One option provided by law would be for Courtney to ask the governor to send the Oregon State Police to find the missing senators.
He did that in 2007, but Republican leadership broke the strike by returning to the building before police hauled lawmakers back to Salem. He later apologized for the move.
The authority of the state police in such a circumstance isn’t law. State law gives the governor the power to use the state police to “compel” lawmakers back to the building. It’s not clear if that means troopers can arrest senators. The state police and Gov. Kate Brown’s office declined comment.
Some lawmakers have started wondering whether the Senate can knit itself back together.
“Once you get there, how do you get back?” Roblan asked rhetorically. “I worry that going to this nuclear option makes it harder for that next conversation to happen.”
“Human beings don’t just come back like nothing happened,” Courtney said.
Reporters Mark Miller of the Pamplin Media Group, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Aubrey Wieber of Salem Reporter, email@example.com, work as part of the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration between Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group and Salem Reporter.
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