Oregon Legislature in turmoil as Senate Republicans threaten to bolt from Capitol

Loggers rally outside of the Capitol on Wednesday to protest cap and trade. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature is mere days away from having to close up shop.

But uncertainty has permeated the Capitol for the past couple of days as Senate Republicans threaten to stop proceedings over a landmark environmental policy.

If the 11 Republican senators decide not to show Thursday morning, when a bill to limit the state’s industrial polluters is up for a vote, that would mean the Senate won’t have the 20 members it needs to legally meet.

The late-season shenanigans — combined with some hemming and hawing among Democrats — could throw a wrench into the conclusion of the session and create a logjam of bills.

Lawmakers have been busy working to allocate money for state programs like foster care and schools and to revise the state’s laws.

Gov. Kate Brown has stepped in, saying she’d convene a special session to force cap and trade through if lawmakers don’t get it done by their June 30 deadline.

Long-standing tension between Oregon’s environmentalists and timber industry emerged into full view in the Capitol this week.

The day began Wednesday with hordes of loggers and truckers showing up to protest against the goliath proposal to limit the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

With their trademark suspenders and hard hats, loggers presented a gritty contrast to the environmental advocates in white “Clean Energy Jobs” T-shirts who sat in the lobbies of all three Senate office floors for the second consecutive day, providing a constant reminder of how they would like their senators to vote.

In the second-floor Senate lobby, as Democrats huddled in their caucus room Wednesday morning, members of each group stood elbow-to-elbow, waiting for a chance to make their pitch to senators: “kill the bill” or “pass it now.”

Meanwhile, floor sessions in the Senate have seen more bickering, at a time of the session traditionally characterized by crabbiness and an eagerness to go home.

Most of the 18 Democrats in the Senate are backing the House Bill 2020.

But the votes of Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham, Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay, Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Beaverton and Betsy Johnson of Scappoose have been in question for weeks.

Johnson is a definite no. On Tuesday night, Monnes Anderson said she still hadn’t decided, but she’s confident some kind of deal among Democrats would be worked out.

Democrats — who spoke only on background — are confident enough to roll the dice on a floor vote, where political pressure will be imposed on members like Steiner Hayward, who has a liberal constituency west of Portland.

But it’s not clear when or if Democrats will get the chance.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, signaled that he and his caucus were prepared to walk out — denying the Senate a working majority to hold any votes at all — in order to stop the cap-and-trade bill.

Brown responded that she’d order state troopers to round up senators if they attempt a boycott, and then threatened to call legislators into special session two days after adjournment to pass the bill.

She said if Republican senators walk out again, it would violate “the oaths they took to speak for their constituents, as well as the word they gave to their colleagues and to me.”

It was a swift escalation for Brown. When Republican senators shut down Senate business by leaving the Capitol for a week in May, she responded by cutting a deal with Baertschiger to kill two bills most Democrats supported.

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, said Brown taking a hard line now only inflames the politics.

“Six-gun Kate went over her skis this time,” he said Wednesday.

But Sen. Mike Dembrow, D-Portland, said Brown showed she had resolve to back the Democrats and he said it “galvanized” the ranks in a tense moment.

The high-profile legislation was originally going to get “second-read” Wednesday morning — votes are typically taken when legislation is read for the third time — but the Senate floor session was hijacked as tensions boiled over.

Boquist veered off-topic while inveighing against a bill.

“We’re effectively in the midst of a political coup,” Boquist said, turning to the subject of the walkout and Brown’s threat to call the police on absent senators.

To Courtney, the Senate president, who was standing at the dais, Boquist warned, “If you don’t think these boots are for walking, you’re flat wrong, Mr. President. And if you send the state police to get me, Hell’s coming to visit you personally.”

Since the May walkout, senators have been increasingly testy with one another.

Boquist apologized Wednesday after Courtney asked senators to observe “decorum,” but Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, wasn’t satisfied.

“What I heard earlier was a threat, and the apology is not enough,” said Frederick. “That is the kind of thing that we can simply not allow on this floor.”

Courtney conferred with Democratic and Republican leaders after the bill vote, and then recessed the Senate for a couple of hours to let emotions cool down.

The vote will go forward Thursday unless Republican senators walk out and stop Senate business again.

A spokeswoman from Courtney’s office said he’s willing to ask Brown to dispatch state police to bring Republicans back to the Capitol for a vote. He could also fine absent senators up to $500 per day.

For the past two days, though, Courtney has been in direct negotiations with Senate Republicans. Republicans have signaled they are willing to stay in Salem if they can get changes to other policies, although it’s unclear what’s on the table.

In May, a Republican walkout over business taxes came to an end when Democrats agreed to kill bills stepping up restrictions on guns and tightening vaccine requirements.

Democrats aren’t willing to amend the greenhouse gas emissions gap any further.

The House, which has been doing brisk business in recent weeks, has already passed the bill, so any changes now would mean the bill would have to go back to the House for another vote.

Boquist set the odds of a walkout at 50-50.

For him, that goes to 100% if Democrats don’t agree to change the cap-and-trade bill.

“I’ve only worn these boots three times,” he said of his combat boots. “The first time we walked out, yesterday and today.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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