The Oregon Capitol forms a dark silhouette against a pink and blue sky with gray clouds.

The Oregon Capitol building in Salem.

John Rosman / OPB

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Legislative Democrats in Oregon have agreed to relinquish a powerful advantage in redrawing the state’s political districts for the next 10 years in exchange for a commitment from Republicans to stop blocking bills with delay tactics.

The surprise deal, reached Wednesday evening after a weeks-long standoff that has brought legislative action to a trickle, fundamentally shifts the dynamics not only of the 2021 session, but of one of the most consequential actions lawmakers will take this year. With the agreement, Democrats, stymied so far despite holding supermajorities in both legislative chambers, appear to have gained a far easier path to passing much of the agenda they’ve queued up this year.

But they’ve essentially granted veto power to Republicans, who can now block any map of legislative or congressional districts from passing.

“It’s a gamble,” said state Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, shortly after the deal was reached.

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The first hints of a deal emerged Wednesday evening, as a House floor session scheduled for 7:30 p.m. was delayed from starting until nearly 9 p.m. When proceedings finally began, Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, immediately moved that legislative rules requiring that bills be read in full before a final vote be suspended for the remainder of the 2021 session. Those are the same rules that Republicans have used to slow bill passage for more than a month.

Once that motion passed with apparent unanimity, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, announced a change to the House Redistricting Committee, one of two bodies with a primary responsibility for redrawing political maps this year. Kotek announced she would be bumping up the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, to co-chair, and adding another Republican to the body, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby.

That change means that Republicans and Democrats will be evenly split on the committee with three members apiece, and so a party-line vote will be insufficient to pass new maps. Sources within both the House and Senate said they expected Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to make a similar move in the Senate Redistricting Committee.

The deal gives Republicans a far weightier say over what boundaries for the state’s 90 legislative districts will look like for the next 10 years, a decision that can hold enormous sway over the distribution of power in the state. Republicans also have increased their influence in a potentially more interesting matter: How to divide the state into six congressional districts, rather than the current five, if Oregon is awarded an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as expected.

But Democrats have retained a backstop, too — particularly when it comes to legislative districts. If lawmakers fail to successfully pass new legislative boundaries by late September, the task will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a progressive Democrat who few Republicans would want to see in charge of that process.

Should lawmakers fail to come to an agreement on new U.S. House districts, the matter would be settled in the courts.

The deal reached Wednesday did not involve an agreement by Democrats to kill any specific bills, according to three sources speaking on background. But the move did come a day after the field of potential bills was narrowed significantly, following a legislative deadline.

The agreement also comes as Kotek signaled she was willing to require lawmakers to spend nearly 50 hours in floor sessions next week, in order to continue passing bills over Republican delay tactics.

With Stark’s successful motion Wednesday evening, bills will be read by their titles before a final vote for the remainder of the session — a step that takes seconds, rather than hours. Democrats, who’ve been using a computer program to read the longest bills, can give the robots a rest.

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