Oregon House Republicans who have been slowing down the legislative process with a constitutional roadblock presented a series of demands Monday for returning to more normal activity. But their list was nearly immediately pushed aside by a more pressing hindrance: a possible COVID-19 exposure in the chamber.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said Monday she was delaying all action in the House until March 29 at the earliest, after someone who had been in the chamber last week tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I cannot comment on who,” Kotek told reporters. “All I can say is someone who was interacting on the House floor last week has tested positive.” It was not clear Monday afternoon whether the individual was a lawmaker or staffer in the Capitol.
The news added additional complexity to a session that has already seen plenty of turmoil in the House. Republicans for weeks have been requiring all bills be read in full before a final vote, a strategy that has led to lawmakers spending long hours together in the chamber — and led some to worry about catching the coronavirus.
In the first sure sign of what it might take to end that standoff, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan sent a letter to Kotek Monday laying out, in sometimes cutting terms, what it would take to restore the pace of the legislative session.
“As long as the building is closed to the public and deeply controversial legislation continues to be fast-tracked in committees, we will continue to depend on the Constitution, to remind the supermajority we should not operate like it’s business as usual while the public is shut out,” Drazan wrote.
In years past, the constitutional rule that bills be read in full before passage has often been an afterthought, with both parties agreeing to skip bill reading. But the consent of two-thirds of members is required to waive the rule, and Republicans have used it increasingly since 2016 to slow the agenda of the majority Democrats and to attempt to gain more say in legislation.
Kotek on Monday called the move a “pseudo-walkout” that only serves to derail the session.
“I’m frustrated this is becoming normalized behavior,” she said.
Demands that Drazan listed in her letter include: Democrats killing “divisive or controversial” proposals, only moving bills that have bipartisan support, and giving more consideration to her members’ amendments. Drazan is also requesting that Kotek not schedule overly long floor sessions and ensure that both opponents and supporters of bills get equal time to testify in committee.
“This is a year for healing, in our state and nation; a time to come together,” the letter said. “It is not a time for deeply divisive, partisan legislation while the public is locked out of the building.”
While bill reading is not a new tactic, it brings another wrinkle in the age of COVID-19.
As she did last year, Kotek has responded to the Republican slow down by signaling she’ll require lawmakers to appear on the House floor for longer periods of time. As of Monday morning, she had scheduled representatives to spend roughly 19 hours in session this week.
She later canceled all of those sessions, after a person who interacted with members of the House last week tested positive for COVID-19. House floor sessions have now been delayed until at least March 29.
Drazan issued a release Monday afternoon saying lawmakers and staff should stay away from the Capitol until at least March 26, a move that’s somewhat in line with recommendations from Marion County health officials.
“There are several elected members from the House with underlying conditions who have not had the opportunity to vaccinate yet,” Drazan said in a statement. “We need to do everything we can to keep everyone in the building safe.”
Even prior to news of the potential exposure, some House members had grown increasingly worried about having to spend long hours on the floor, among other lawmakers.
Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Democrat from Portland and a doctor who has spent time caring for COVID-19 patients on life support, said adding any additional exposure or risk that isn’t completely necessary is unacceptable.
Dexter is worried the state is poised for a fourth surge as the new variant, known as B.1.17, becomes the dominant strain. The variant is more contagious, more deadly and more likely to spread among children.
The thought of spending extra time in the building to read bills would not only put peoples’ lives at risk, Dexter said, but could also threaten the progress the state has recently made toward reopening schools and businesses.
“The biggest issue is, we have work to do and delaying the work over a parliamentary procedure and increasing everyone’s time on the floor is reckless and needs to be reconsidered,” Dexter said, adding the bills being read are largely non-controversial bipartisan measures.
Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, also voiced concerns and pointed to recent news the Idaho state Legislature had to suspend work for two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak among lawmakers and staff.
“I am concerned about the extra time we are spending together on the floor and what that means for the increased risk of transmission, and that’s not just me but for the staff who don’t have a choice,” Fahey said, adding later, “This is not a game. This is peoples’ lives.”
Kotek, acknowledging the potential health risks, sent a letter to Drazan and House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner on Friday.
“Next week we are scheduled for 19 hours on the House floor,” she wrote. “Several legislators who are not yet eligible for a vaccine have expressed concerns that this additional time on the floor will create unnecessary and additional risks of spreading COVID-19 among staff, legislators and our family. The Oregon Health Authority has confirmed that decreasing the amount of time we spend together in close proximity reduces risk of transmission.”
Kotek went on to request that members take safety precautions to limit the risk of COVID-19-exposure, and also that Drazan and Smith Warner “collaborate to suspend the requirement that all bills be read in full, if not for the rest of session then on a daily basis, or at minimum for bipartisan bills longer than five pages.”
Drazan’s letter Monday served as a response to Kotek — one in which she made clear her members would not comply with the final request.
“I understand from your letter you recognize that your recently proposed work schedule does not support public health,” Drazan wrote. “I agree.”
A further sign no deal had been reached came Monday morning, as the House reading clerk, Lacy Ramirez Gruss, once again began the laborious process of reading bills aloud line by line prior to a final vote.
At one point, Kotek attempted to ease some of Ramirez Gruss’ burden, asking House members’ assent to kill a 170-page bill that would change the name of a state agency, but potentially require more than eight hours to read in full.
The motion required 40 votes to pass. It failed in a party-line vote.