Republicans in the Oregon Legislature this week have unleashed a flurry of delay tactics, stymieing majority Democrats’ attempts to efficiently eliminate a backlog of bills awaiting votes in either chamber.
In the state Senate, GOP lawmakers doubled down on maneuvers they’ve employed since the session’s early days. Republicans have insisted all year that nearly every bill be read in full before a final vote, a common tactic among minority lawmakers to slow the progress of the majority.
But as the session takes a turn away from housing and semiconductors — areas of common bipartisan interest — and toward more contentious debates over topics such as guns and gender-affirming health care, GOP senators have begun using persistent speeches and dead-end motions to ensure the Democratic majority can pass fewer bills in a given day.
In the House, where Republicans have been less reliant on delay tactics, the party nonetheless pumped the brakes this week, with its 25 members slow to cast votes and opting to speak at length on many items. In one instance, Republicans required a 47-page bill to be read in full by a computer, a process that took nearly three hours.
The concerted efforts upended Democrats’ plans for quickly pushing past a backlog as the session passed its halfway mark.
Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, had planned to cancel legislative committees on Monday and Tuesday to clear a long list of bills awaiting passage. Unable to do so efficiently, both leaders wound up largely scrapping committee hearings for the entire week, opting to keep lawmakers on the floor.
Democrats insist they are not concerned about running out of time to pass their priorities before a mandatory June 25 adjournment. Beyond the necessity of passing a new two-year budget, legislative leaders have signaled they will press new gun regulations, protections on abortion access, an expansion to gender-affirming care covered by insurance, and bolstered rent control — all policy moves that Republicans oppose.
But Democrats also offered hints this week they might need to make adjustments to smooth the passage of their agenda.
In the House, Rayfield on Wednesday agreed to delay a vote on House Bill 2005, a bill to outlaw so-called ghost guns, increase the age to possess many guns to 21, and potentially increase the number of public places where concealed handguns are prohibited. In exchange for postponing a vote on the bill to early May, Republicans agreed to ease up on delay maneuvers that some in the party had touted earlier in the day.
“We’re doing it to keep the peace,” said state Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland. “That way we don’t have to have every bill read aloud and everybody get up and talk about every single bill for days and days on end.”
In some past sessions, Democrats have been convinced to abandon gun safety bills in exchange for fluid progress of other big-ticket items. Rayfield said Thursday he has no intention of doing that.
“One thing that’s been important for me is not negotiating away things,” he told OPB, adding that he was happy to give Republicans time to voice their protest. “We started moving into a few of the options that people are extremely passionate about. That’s what you started to see this week.”
The upside for Republicans to delaying a vote on HB 2005 is rooted in the party’s insistence that there are major questions about how the bill would work — or that it can even pass constitutional muster. A recent ruling by a federal judge in Texas called into question ghost gun prohibitions enacted by the Biden administration.
“Serious constitutional questions have been asked about House Bill 2005 B, and legislative counsel admits to constitutional concerns being an ‘open question,” said House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, citing a legislative attorney’s comments in a hearing last week. “Not only should these questions be answered, but the Legislative body should not knowingly pass legislation that will end up in a lawsuit.”
Breese-Iverson said the delay would give Republicans “time for questions to be answered prior to Senators voting on such serious legislation.”
The truce produced results on Thursday. By lunchtime, the House had passed 14 bills, compared to the 26 it managed to take up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday combined. A plan to call lawmakers to the Capitol on Saturday to continue taking up bills had been dropped.
In a tongue-in-cheek comment, Rayfield commented that fewer lawmakers had risen to extend “courtesies,” typically rosy speeches in which legislators compliment visiting constituents or dignitaries that are sometimes weaponized to take up time.
“Courtesies only took 30 minutes today,” Rayfield said. “Previously this week we have been a heck of a lot more courteous, so we are slipping.”
Change seemed less likely in the Senate. All this week, Republican senators have spent hours each day on a series of motions requesting that bills touching on public safety, agriculture and schools be pulled for an immediate vote. The Republican-sponsored bills are currently fated to die in committee.
Those attempts inevitably fail, at which point Republicans often rise to file “vote explanations,” extending the matter further.
GOP lawmakers also took up time rising to extend courtesies to some Democratic senators. The speeches were complimentary, but they annoyed at least one recipient.
“Our time here is really valuable. We have a lot of important business to do,” said state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, after a courtesy singing his praises for “graciously serving the people of Oregon,” among other things. “I want to extend my appreciation, but let’s make Dembrow the last person recognized on this floor.”
From the outset of this year’s session, Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has pledged to work against Democrats if they block Republican priorities and push policies with which his members strenuously disagree.
“(Democrats) want to run their progressive liberal agenda, and we will do what we can to stop it,” Knopp told OPB recently. “Because we don’t believe the vast majority of Oregonians, including those we represent, believe in the progressive liberal agenda.”
Wagner, the Senate president, has said repeatedly Knopp has not made any demands in return for Senate Republicans ending slow-down tactics, and that the two of them have not discussed horse trading bills.
Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, in an interview during one of this week’s lengthy floor sessions, insisted Democrats are not worried.
“These are delay tactics,” said Lieber, a Portland Democrat, “and it’s not going to interfere with the Democratic agenda.”
With more than two months remaining in this year’s session, Lieber said, there is plenty of time to pass bills Democrats have prioritized – especially after voters approved a ballot measure last year making legislative walkouts far more difficult. If that changes, she said, “we’ve got tools in the tool belt or arrows in the quiver, or however you want to put it.”
One option, Lieber said: Using the Democratic majority to change chamber rules in a way that could make the Senate operate more efficiently.
“We don’t need to go to those places yet,” she said. “But we do have the ability if need be to make the process work for Oregonians.”
Lauren Dake contributed to this report.