SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A boycott by Republican state senators in Oregon threatens to derail hundreds of bills, including on gun control and abortion rights, as a deadline looms that could also upend the protesters’ political futures.
Democrats control the Statehouse in Oregon. But the GOP is leveraging rules that require two-thirds of lawmakers be present to pass legislation, which means Democrats need a certain number of Republicans to be there too.
Republican and Democratic leaders in the Oregon Legislature met behind closed doors for a second day Thursday to try to bridge the divide as the boycott entered its ninth straight day, with partisan bills on abortion, gender-affirming care and gun control on the line. Lawmakers with 10 unexcused absences are barred from reelection under a constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly last November by voters weary of repeated walkouts.
Several statehouses around the nation, including in Montana and Tennessee, have been ideological battlegrounds. Oregon — which pioneered marijuana decriminalization, recycling, and protecting immigrants — is often viewed one of America’s most liberal states. But it also has deeply conservative rural areas.
That clash of ideologies has led to the Senate being out of action since May 2. Pending bills are stacked up and the biennial state budget, which must be approved by both the House and Senate by the end of June, is left undone.
Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek’s office noted Thursday night that there are many important bills at stake.
“Oregonians are demanding that elected leaders deliver results on homelessness, behavioral health, education, and other major issues right now,” Kotek spokesperson Elisabeth Shepard said.
To give time for negotiations — and keep boycotters with nine unexcused absences from hitting that 10-day tripwire — Senate President Rob Wagner agreed to cancel Senate sessions that were scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was instead scheduled to reconvene on Monday.
“I think people, at least people who observe politics, are going to have a pretty anxious weekend,” Priscilla Southwell, professor emerita of political science at the University of Oregon, said Friday.
About 100 people, including members of Moms Demand Action, a gun-safety group, protested the walkout late Thursday on the steps of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem.
“Get back to work,” they chanted.
“We demand you show up!” Liz Marquez, a political organizer with PCUN, a farmworkers union, said over a loudspeaker. “Every day, Oregon workers show up for difficult and sometimes dangerous jobs.”
Republican lawmakers in Oregon have stymied several previous legislative sessions. In one boycott, they were backed by dozens of truckers who surrounded the Capitol while blasting their horns, fearing that a bill addressing climate change would adversely impact them.
This time, Republican senators insist their stayaway is mostly due to a 1979 law — rediscovered last month by a GOP Senate staffer — that requires bill summaries to be written at an eighth grade level. Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp said Republicans also want Democrats to set aside “their most extreme bills.”
But to Democrats, it’s obvious the readability issue is just an excuse to prevent progress on Democrat-priority bills, like House Bill 2002, intended to protect abortion and gender-affirming health care for transgender people by boosting legal safeguards and expanding access and insurance coverage.
“It is abundantly clear that there is a concerted effort to undermine the will of people and bring the Legislature to a halt in violation of the Constitution of the state of Oregon,” Wagner said as he gaveled closed the May 5 floor session because of the lack of quorum. “It is also clear that this is an effort to stop this chamber from holding a debate on House Bill 2002.”
Knopp, the GOP Senate leader, said Thursday he hopes the cancellation of this weekend’s Senate sessions “will give us time to work out a legitimate agreement that will benefit all Oregonians.”
But Wagner says the bill on abortion rights and gender-affirming care is not negotiable.
A prolonged boycott by Senate Republicans would throw into doubt not only the rest of the 2023 legislative session, which is supposed to end by June 25, but could sow complications for next year’s primaries and general election.
That’s because it’s unclear how the boycotters would be disqualified from running again. The 2022 ballot measure is now part of the Oregon Constitution, which disqualifies a lawmaker with 10 or more unexcused absences “from holding office” in the next term.
An explanatory statement for Ballot Measure 113, signed by a former state supreme court justice and others, says a disqualified candidate “may run for office … and win, but cannot hold office.”
But Ben Morris, spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said the secretary of state’s elections division wouldn’t put a disqualified lawmaker on the ballot.
“While this may differ from the explanatory statement, the courts have interpreted the elections statutes to state that a filing officer can’t allow a candidate on the ballot if it knows the candidate won’t qualify for office,” Morris said.
Disqualified Republicans are expected to file legal challenges.
The SEIU503 union, which represents care workers, nonprofit employees and public workers throughout Oregon, strongly backed the ballot measure. Union Executive Director Melissa Unger said the fact that Measure 113 didn’t prevent a walkout doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
“The reality is, all things take time to change,” Unger said Thursday. “So I guess we’ll have new senators in two years, and maybe they’ll learn a lesson.”