Discussion over a relatively minor change to Oregon House rules became uncommonly tense Tuesday, as Democrats and Republicans differed on how they want to approach possible expulsion proceedings against state Rep. Mike Nearman over his role in the Dec. 21 incursion by far-right protesters at the Oregon Capitol building.
At issue in the House Rules Committee was a tweak that would allow a new special committee created to handle the Nearman case to hold work sessions on an expulsion resolution. Under internal House rules, deadlines for such hearings have passed for the majority of legislative committees.
But debate over the change devolved into a brief shouting match, a telling sign of how sensitive the fast-approaching expulsion process might be in a legislative body that’s never ejected one of its own. The rules tweak wound up passing out of committee on a party-line vote, before passing in the full House by a more comfortable margin.
Democrats on the House Rules Committee agreed with forming a new committee. They said that a violation as serious as Nearman allowing far-right demonstrators into the state Capitol in December was not the clear purview of any other committee. That includes the House Conduct Committee, which has tackled possible expulsions before but might be limited to considering issues of harassment, retaliation, and discrimination.
“It’s really the prudent thing to do to have a separate committee just to make sure we’ve crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is,” said state Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene.
But some Republicans bristled at the approach, suggesting there was no need to create a new committee and worrying its purview might be overbroad.
“It feels hyper-political in what is already a politically charged conversation,” said state Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles.
Bonham voiced another issue as well. He complained about a series of tweets by Democratic state Rep. Lisa Reynolds on Monday that criticized House Republicans for not acting sooner to remove Nearman.
TIMELINE:— Representative Lisa Reynolds (@RepLisaReynolds) June 8, 2021
Dec 21, 2020: Rep Nearman opens the door at the capitol to an armed mob made up of white supremacists while the Oregon legislature was holding a special session there. Supremacists attacked Oregon State Police with bear spray and damaged property.
The Republican caucus has been largely silent about Nearman’s actions since they came to light in January, with lawmakers saying they wanted to wait for the results of inquiries into the matter. But that position changed after video emerged Friday of Nearman proactively planning the Capitol incursion, telling supporters he’d let them into the building if they texted him. By Monday, all of Nearman’s 22 fellow Republicans were calling on him to resign.
Bonham asked Tuesday why the Democratic House speaker had waited to form a special committee to handle the matter.
“Why now?” he asked. “What triggered this action?”
House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner responded pointedly, telling Bonham. “The video that was released! The video that was released on Friday.”
Bonham countered that if the video was enough to spur a special committee on expulsion, it could also be a valid reason for Republicans to alter their position. “I find it offensive that Republican actions are matched by this action right here, and yet we’re being held to a different standard,” he said.
All three Republicans on the House Rules Committee voted against the rule change, but majority Democrats had the numbers to pass it.
“The reason this is being set up this way is because this is an egregious, almost unimaginable event that has taken place that we are continuing to respond to,” Smith Warner said. “This is, I hope, a once in a lifetime event that this a response to. I hope that we would never have to do something like this again.”
The matter was transferred quickly to the House floor, where once again debate fell largely along party lines -- albeit in cooler tones. The House passed the rule change on a 43-16 vote, paving the way for the expulsion process to proceed.
The Special Committee on Dec. 21, 2020, created by Kotek on Monday, contains the top three members of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House (Kotek, as a presiding officer, is not included). That split would ensure the committee could take no action without bipartisan support, the same approach used by the conduct committees that most frequently take up workplace matters.
While some Republicans appear to dislike the proposal to create a special committee, Nearman said Monday there will be at least the required 40 votes to eject him. “On Friday morning, they’ll vote to expel me, and I believe they have the votes,” Nearman told conservative radio host Lars Larson.
Whether or not an expulsion vote will occur as early as Friday is unclear. Without authority to hold work sessions, the special committee had not yet set a hearing date of Tuesday morning. If the committee were to pass a resolution to expel Nearman, the matter would then need to go before the full House.
Nearman suggested to Larson on Monday that he would allow the vote to occur, rather than pre-empting it with a resignation as former state Rep. Diego Hernandez did earlier this year.
How an expulsion push might impact an ongoing criminal case against Nearman is up for debate. State Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, said Tuesday he worried it could “have an adverse or unintended impact on the legal proceedings outside of this building.”
But at least one of Nearman’s fellow Republicans feels an expulsion vote, if it occurs, could help the lawmaker.
“I STILL feel the due process should play out and that the Legislature stepping in COULD help his legal case,” state Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, said in a message to OPB.
Post has been a rare Republican lawmaker who’d been vocal about the case against Nearman, stressing that his motives in allowing demonstrators into the Capitol could not be presumed. He told OPB that the video that emerged Friday had changed his mind.