State Rep. Cheri Helt, a Republican from Bend, was the lone member of her party to show up for a floor session in the Oregon House on Tuesday, Feb. 25. The walkout by her colleagues echoed one the day before by Senate Republicans. (Sam Stites/Oregon Capital Bureau)

SALEM — The Capitol became a place without Republicans Tuesday, an extraordinary act of defiance of the control by Democrats.

Their absence is grinding to a halt votes in the House and the Senate, plugging the political pipeline meant to cure immediate needs of Oregonians.

House Republicans mimicked their colleagues in the Senate, disappearing as House Speaker Tina Kotek gaveled into session a standard floor session Tuesday morning.

She proceeded with opening rituals – the presentation of the colors by youth from the Civil Air Patrol, the reading of “courtesies” by legislators who welcome constituents to the Capitol, and then a song by a high school student.


But when it was time to go to work, Kotek adjourned the session when all but one of 22 Republican legislators failed to respond to the electronic roll call. Without comment, Kotek gaveled the 16-minute session to a close.

Across the Capitol, in the Senate, Democrats gathered in what was a futile convening in the wood-paneled chamber, where even routine tasks were lost to the absence of all 11 Republican senators.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, clutched a religious text. Without enough members, she said, they couldn’t even conduct an opening prayer.

After about 10 minutes, the Senate adjourned, slated to return again on Wednesday.

Across the Capitol, no one was talking about what comes next.

Republican legislators are focused on just one of the hundreds of bills before the 2020 Legislature: A plan to reduce Oregon’s greenhouse emissions in a system they say will wreck Oregon’s economy, particularly in rural areas of the state.

The legislation – Senate Bill 1530 – was headed for the Senate floor Monday when senators in the minority declared they wanted no part of a vote.

The Senate Republicans on Tuesday were mum about their intentions, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, offered no public clue how he would bring his chamber back together. Twice before, Democrats have conceded to Republican demands to end previous walkouts.

In the House, the path forward was no clearer. Leaders of both the Democrats and Republicans weren’t saying what their next steps would be.

As the game of political chicken unfolded, Democrats tried to create some image of business as usual.

In both the House and the Senate, committees worked away at the grunt work of the legislature – listening to testimony and advancing bills. But they sent them off to an uncertain fate, since they will sit in the “inbox” of the Senate or House, awaiting floor action.

But unless at least of a couple of Republican legislators show up for duty, those bills go nowhere.

Democrats signaled no interest in giving into Republican demands to refer the bill to Oregon voters.

“The bill is done,” said Sen. Democratic Leader Ginny Burdick, of Portland, as she was zipping up a jacket Tuesday afternoon for an outing with Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a leading author of the bill. “There is nothing more that can be done. You know, they're holding out for a vote of the people. That's not going to happen.”

In the House, Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner of Portland, said she’s giving Republicans “space” to consider their next move.

“You know what? The House, they just walked out today,” Smith Warner said. “The Senate, they've been through this all before. It's old hat for them, perhaps. But over here we are continuing to do outreach, member to member, and hope that our members will respect the office and their voters and their constituents and come back and do their job. And so we're taking it day by day.”

Smith Warner just wants enough representatives on the floor to allow the House to vote, she said. The Legislature must adjourn by 11:59 p.m. March 8.

“I would like as many of them to come back as possible,” Smith Warner said. “I would like us to do our work and complete our work. And if they don't, then we adjourn... And the governor can, and I hope will, call a special session and just continue to move forward until folks come and do their job.”

Republicans weren’t revealing much about their game plan.

Sen. Herman Baertschiger, Jr., who leads Republicans in the Senate, told reporters by phone on Tuesday that his caucus will stay away until the deadline “if we have to.”

Asked where Senate Republicans were holed up, he asked, “Why would I tell you that?”

Of his fellow Senate Republicans, he did say he’s “confident that they’ve left the state. They’ve been through this before and it’s just a lot of pressure on them if they don’t leave the state.”

In the background is the possibility that a decision on climate change will be taken out of legislators’ hands and taken directly to voters by proponents of an even more stringent climate change proposal.

Burdick said Democratic leaders haven’t factored that in as they consider their next steps.

“I think we've been focusing so hard on trying to get a bill done in the process, which is where a bill like that should be done,” Burdick said. 

As far as the possibility of outside initiatives goes, “it really is not much of a discussion,” Burdick said.

Instead, Democrats have tried to appeal to Republicans’ better angels, making grand and sweeping public pronouncements about how their GOP colleagues have spurned the institution of representative government.

Last year, Renew Oregon, a coalition of environmental and other groups, sponsored a series of ballot measures that have more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy goals than the stalled legislation. 

Brad Reed, spokesman for Renew Oregon, said that the initiatives were filed to spur legislators into action. 

One initiative would cut climate pollution in half by 2035 and make the state 100% carbon-free by 2050. By contrast, the bill in the Legislature seeks an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 and makes concessions to businesses, he said.

A companion initiative would mandate that by 2045 all of the state’s energy would come from renewable sources. 

Reed said that lawmakers of both parties have been briefed on both initiatives. 

“They know they’re out there,” he said. 

Reed added that a poll commissioned by Renew Oregon showed a majority of Oregon voters supporting the measures.

Reed said, though, that Renew Oregon would prefer the Legislature address the issue, but the group is poised to push an effort to get its measures before voters in November if legislators don’t act.

Democratic leaders have also said the Legislature, with its ability to broker compromise and concessions, is better-suited to take up the issue - a scalpel, compared to the blunt mallet of the initiative process.

They also believe that voters in Republican districts will understand what other issues serving their needs would be lost if the Legislature stalls out.

“At some point, their constituents are going to look at all the stuff that has nothing to do with carbon, and isn't even controversial, that benefits their district that's sitting there on the table that will die if they don't show up and do their job,” Burdick said.

“I anticipate my Republican colleagues will come back to work,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, walking briskly on his way to a meeting of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

He said that Republicans will realize that being away from the Capitol will end up hurting the people that they represent, and the damage will be worse the longer they’re gone. 

Several Democrats supporting sending state money to the flood-swept Umatilla Basin, for example, but say they can’t advance that without a quorum only Republicans can provide.

Baertschiger told reporters Tuesday that Gov. Kate Brown could provide relief to flood victims without legislative action.

“Pure poppycock,” said Prozanski, curtly, before stepping into a committee room. 

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, is the lone Senate Republican who has stayed behind. He said he spent Tuesday in committee sessions, other meetings and working on amendments.

“It's obviously a little quiet on my floor,” Knopp said with a barely perceptible laugh, adding that he was working on a bill to change the new commercial activities tax, which he says has placed a heavy burden on businesses facing competition from other areas and sectors like timber and agriculture.

He said that his fellow Republicans are “resolute” about staying away.

“I think right now we're at stalemate,” Knopp said.

On the Capitol steps, Democrats and climate advocates voiced their frustration to a gathering of a few hundred people, calling on Republicans to come back. 

Signs bearing messages from “You can’t run from climate change” to “Where the hell are you Senator Boquist?” waved through the chilly afternoon as speakers riled up the crowd. 

“We’re here to say that a vast majority of Oregonians do not approve of these GOP walkouts,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503. “How do we know? Well, because we asked them.” 

SEIU Local 503, whose political action committee typically backs liberal candidates and causes, pointed to a poll by FM3 Research regarding the walkouts.

The January survey polled 750 Oregonians likely to vote in the November election. Fifty-nine percent of respondents somewhat or strongly opposed walkouts by Republicans. Thirty-six percent said they somewhat or strongly supported Republican walkouts. The margin of error on the poll was plus or minus 4%.

Republicans have complained that there hasn’t been enough discussion or consideration of the greenhouse gas bill. 

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, passionately disagreed, pointing to the six hours of floor debate on a similar proposal during last year’s session, and to 35 hours of public hearings over the past year on carbon reduction bills. 

“No bill has ever had this much work in the history of Oregon,” Power said. “It’s been crafted over many years. It’s been well vetted and negotiated, and it deserves a vote by the Legislature.” 

Protesters gather outside the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 25, angry over the walkout by Republican legislators in a dispute over climate change legislation. (Sam Stites/Oregon Capital Bureau)

Protesters gather outside the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 25, angry over the walkout by Republican legislators in a dispute over climate change legislation. (Sam Stites/Oregon Capital Bureau)

Sen. Mike Dembrow addresses protesters outside the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 25. They were angry over the walkout by Republican legislators in a dispute over climate change legislation. (Sam Stites/Oregon Capital Bureau)