Senate Republicans in Oregon plan to return to floor sessions this week, after stalling the chamber by refusing to attend last Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said Monday that his 11-member caucus had gotten what it wanted from denying Democrats a quorum required to conduct business: Attention to wide-ranging complaints about Democratic leadership.
“I don’t like using it. I honestly don’t,” Girod told OPB. “But what do you do when things are that bad and you feel like it’s your only option to be heard?”
When the Senate convenes again on Wednesday, Girod said he expects his members will be in attendance. And while he said that could change under certain conditions, he declined to elaborate.
“We plan on being there,” he said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
Quorum denial — where a minority party refuses to grant the majority enough members present to conduct any business — has long been seen as a last-ditch “nuclear” option in Oregon politics. But with Democrats gaining wide majorities in both chambers beginning in 2019, it’s become a go-to for Senate Republicans.
The caucus fled the state in both the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions in order to block Democrats from passing a bill that would have curbed carbon emissions. In 2020, with both Senate and House Republicans absent, the one-month short session sputtered to a close with just two bills moving to the governor’s desk.
Girod insisted Monday that last week’s action was not a “walkout” in that mode.
“A walkout to me is when I’m in Nevada or Arizona or some other state,” he said. “This was a protest. It just was a protest of what’s happening in this building.”
When they refused to attend last week’s session, Republicans made a list of demands that Girod conceded are not likely to come to pass. They said that Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, needed to immediately return all students to in-person instruction, prioritize seniors for vaccines, and commit to not raising taxes or closing out tax breaks. Girod also raised concerns about accessibility to the legislative process while the Capitol is closed off to the general public during the pandemic.
Girod said that he had received no answer from Brown, but that his members would not continue denying a quorum until their demands were met. He downplayed the seriousness of the party’s tactic, noting that the Senate agenda last week was relatively sparse. Girod repeatedly characterized it as not showing up for 15 minutes of planned action.
“It’s not like we did any permanent harm to any certain bill,” Girod said. “We did serve notice to the governor that, by gosh, she needs to open up the schools.”
The maneuver by Senate Republicans didn’t only catch Democrats off guard. House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said Friday she’d been surprised by the move, but that she understood it.
“It might be less about whether it’s a winning strategy,” she said. “It’s maybe more about it’s the only strategy that they have available to elevate their concerns.”
One thing Girod and his fellow Republicans have done: given new energy to proposals to change the state’s quorum requirements.
Under the state’s Constitution, both chambers of the Legislature require two-thirds of members present in order to pass bills and complete other tasks. Democrats are shy of that threshold by two members in the Senate, and three members in the House.
But Democrats are considering trying to change that math. Under a resolution introduced in the Senate, Oregon voters would decide in 2022 whether to change the state’s quorum threshold to a simple majority, a standard in many other states.
That resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 4, has yet to be scheduled for a hearing this year. But that appears likely to change.
“Oregonians will hold Senate Republicans accountable and responsible for walking off the job,” Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner said in a statement Thursday. “There will be consequences for their breach of the public trust. We will advance new rules and laws that will deter future walkouts and provide accountability for all elected officials who refuse to show up for Oregonians.”
Wagner is the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, where SJR 4 currently sits.
Asked about the Republican no-show, House Speaker Tine Kotek on Monday voiced support for changes to quorum rules.
“We cannot normalize the behavior of people walking off the job,” Kotek said. “It was bad in 2019 when this happened. It was bad in 2020. It’s deplorable that it’s happening now, again, in the middle of a crisis. ... I’m hoping it was a one-off because there’s no rhyme or reason to it.”