Standoff in Salem continues as clock ticks toward adjournment, legislation imperiled

The Oregon Senate chambers remain nearly empty this week as a quorum has not convened. (Oregon Capital Bureau)

SALEM — A week after they left Salem to protest a sweeping Democratic proposal to address climate change, Republican senators are finding other reasons not to return.

The cap-and-trade plan known as House Bill 2020 lacks the votes to pass, Democrats said Tuesday. But even with HB 2020’s demise, there’s no sign that the return of the Republicans is imminent, and negotiations to get the 11 senators back in the Capitol appear to have stalled.

None of the absent senators have declared their intention to return to the Senate to get on with its business, and a few have said they won’t until other issues are addressed.

“If I only I could believe the collective called the Oregon Legislative Democrats and get ironclad assurances that HB 2020 and the worst bills will die, and stay dead, with no tricks or deceit, and that they would cease and desist their strong arm tactics against us … then maybe we could think about it,” Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, wrote on her official campaign Facebook page late Tuesday. “Meanwhile, there is nothing that can get me back to the Capitol to help them get a quorum while they compare Republicans including veterans in our caucus to terrorists, introduce bills and rule changes to purposely and personally hurt us, and continue to be vindictive bullies.”

Senate Republicans have slowed down negotiations and talks with local media, but have made time for national pundits, going on Fox News and Vice News to champion their cause, despite the bill being dead.

Talks don’t seem to be progressing.

“Each day we lose is critical,” Carol Currie, spokeswoman for Senate President Peter Courtney, said Wednesday afternoon. She said she wasn’t sure whether Courtney had spoken with Senate Republicans since the day before and otherwise declined comment on Courtney’s next moves. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said Courtney continues to have conversations with Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, “but nothing has come of it.”

Courtney, a Salem Democrat, said Tuesday morning that he doesn’t have the votes to pass HB 2020, the cap-and-trade proposal that Republicans repeatedly cited as their reason for decamping from the Capitol — leaving the Senate without enough members to meet and take up legislation.

The announcement was a dramatic concession to minority Republicans, and it sparked renewed chatter about whether Republicans would return to Salem from their out-of-state hideaways in time for the Senate to vote on bills before they die.

One challenge is that the legislation they oppose technically remains alive. It was scheduled for a third reading on the Senate floor — the prelude to a final vote. That’s where the bill is stuck until senators act. They can vote on the bill, amend it or send it back to a committee. Each option requires a quorum so Democratic senators can’t alone bury the legislation.

Opponents of HB 2020 still plan to rally outside the Capitol on Thursday morning, along with a convoy of logging trucks and other heavy vehicles. The theme of the rally is “stay strong, stay gone,” encouraging Senate Republicans to continue their boycott.

While Courtney has beseeched the Republicans to return, others in the Capitol seem to have run out of patience.

The “terrorists” remarks that angered Thatcher came from at least two sources: Burdick, who likened Republicans’ refusal to allow the Senate to meet to “terrorism” during a Tuesday press conference, and Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, a U.S. Air Force veteran who took to Twitter to criticize Courtney, writing that his “military experience taught me the difference between respectful diplomacy and giving in to terrorists.”

While other leading Democrats refrained from such a comparison, their remarks were hardly conciliatory.

“Senate Rs have been threatening our democratic institution and subverting the will of Oregon voters who know we need to act now,” House Speaker Tina Kotek tweeted. “Their walkout has come at immense cost to our institution and potentially the planet.”

“Are they against climate change legislation or are they against democracy?” Gov. Kate Brown asked of Senate Republicans in a statement. “If they are not back by Wednesday afternoon, we will know the answer.”

Senate Republicans weren’t back by Wednesday afternoon. None of them responded to emailed questions from the Oregon Capital Bureau.

Republicans have a bevy of other complaints, too.

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, is inclined to stay away from Salem unless Democrats spike several other bills he dislikes, including a plan to schedule a possible voter referendum on a business tax and education funding plan for January 2020 instead of November 2020.

“There’s probably half a dozen bills that will die if we stay out ’til the end that we don’t like,” Girod said.

Girod, Thatcher and other Republicans are also unhappy with the way Democrats have tried to force them back to the Capitol. The Constitution gives legislators the right to “compel” absent colleagues to attend so they can hold a vote, but Republicans have excoriated Courtney, Burdick and Brown for enlisting the Oregon State Police in their effort to bring the wayward senators back.

Senate Republicans are also accruing a $500 fine each day they don’t show up to work. Once they return, the Legislature will give them a bill with a deadline to pay it. If senators refuse, the Legislature could sue them.

Exactly how they pay those fines has become the talk of the Capitol.

Some wonder if the senators would tap their political action committees, by law to be used for campaigning and official duties.

Tom Powers, administrator for the Senate Democrats, said if Republicans use campaign money to pay fines, they could face investigation by the state Elections Division.

Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, introduced a bill Tuesday that would explicitly prohibit lawmakers who get fined for being absent from resorting to their campaign accounts. The bill isn’t going anywhere, he admitted, but he decided now would be a good time to call attention to the issue.

“It would look really bad if you started getting fined, then you started getting contributions at the same time from someone who had an interest in you staying away,” Wilde said. “Without pointing fingers, any time you’re paying someone to not do their job when they’re an elected official, that’s a bad look. I’m not saying it’s illegal. I’m saying maybe it ought to be.”

The Senate Republicans’ political action committee has reported raising $17,876 since the walkout began June 20. Additionally, the Oregon Firearms Federation disclosed a $25,000 campaign contribution it made to the Senate Republicans on Tuesday.

The federation lambasted Wilde for his “stupidity,” saying his bill is “designed to further punish” Republican senators. The group didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday.

Further, it’s not clear how Republicans are funding their out-of-state stays. The Oregon Capital Bureau emailed questions about that to all 11 absent senators and by Wednesday evening, none had responded.

The day before Republicans walked out, Courtney announced that the Senate would consider a rule barring senators from raising money for their campaigns during the legislative session. The House already has that rule. In the Senate, it’s on ice until Republicans return to the building and can vote on the new restriction.

There are well over 100 bills on the Senate’s docket, which has grown daily as the House continues to meet as usual. Nearly all of them passed the House or came out of committee with a range of limited to overwhelming Republican support.

They include:

• A plan to provide drivers’ cards to people without proof of citizenship or legal residency, which passed the House 39-21.

• A proposed paid family and medical leave program that has broad support from both businesses and labor unions, which the House approved 45-13.

• An increase to the state’s tobacco tax, which voters would have to approve, that also passed the House 39-21.

• Several campaign finance reform proposals, including a constitutional amendment that would be referred to voters.

• A raft of affordable housing legislation, including Kotek’s plan to allow multifamily housing in neighborhoods in more than 50 cities.

In addition, several budget bills have yet to receive a Senate vote. The foster care system, community colleges and public universities, and state environmental regulators are among those who could end up with less money to spend than legislative budget-writers planned, although they’ll be able to keep operating until mid-September.

All of those bills will die Sunday night unless the Senate can meet, pass them and send them to Brown for signature.

The proposals could resurface in a special session, which Brown has signaled she will call if the Legislature can’t complete its work by 11:59 p.m. Sunday, June 30, or during next year’s “short session,” scheduled for February.

However, the legislation would have to be reintroduced, go through the committee process and pass both chambers.

Girod suggested that isn’t a big deal.

“Any bill that’s killed now should probably have a green light going through the short session, if it has bicameral and both parties support,” Girod said.

If a special session is called, however, it will be up to Democratic leaders to decide its scope.

A spokeswoman for Brown didn’t respond Wednesday to questions about a possible special session. Brown’s staff hasn’t addressed questions about the governor’s involvement in negotiations or respond to requests to interview Brown.

Oregon voters elected Democrats to so-called “supermajorities” in the House and Senate last year. But Republicans still have enough seats that by not showing up to vote, they can stop the Senate from considering legislation altogether. It’s a tactic they’ve used twice this year — once in May, to stall a vote on a business tax, and again this month.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Reporter Mark Miller: [email protected] or503-913-0450.

SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING — For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.