As a walkout in the Oregon Senate nears its eighth day, leaders in both parties may be getting serious about negotiating a return of Republicans.
The top two Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate are scheduled to sit down at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, in a meeting Democrats hope will lay the groundwork for a successful conclusion for the 2023 legislative session. The meeting would mark the first time Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, have spoken since the walkout began.
As of Tuesday afternoon, however, what any agreement might look like was unclear. Republicans started boycotting the session on May 3, saying that Democrats were pushing bills they deem extreme, and arguing Senate leadership had been refusing to follow the legal process for passing bills.
The GOP has demanded that Democrats comply with a law that requires that summaries attached to every bill be written at a roughly 8th-grade reading level. The 1979 rule has not been followed in the Capitol for decades, officials have said. Republicans have also made no secret they would like to scuttle bills expanding abortion protections and gun controls among other things.
Democrats on Wednesday downplayed their willingness to abandon bills to get Republicans back in the building — and said they would refuse to alter House Bill 2002, a contentious proposal dealing with abortion and gender-affirming care that Democrats have made a priority.
“What I keep asking for is: Don’t give us a kill list, give us a wishlist,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland. “What do you want for the people of your districts? What do they need? …We’re not interested in entertaining a kill list, but a wish list — things that actually advance the priorities in your districts — that’s great.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek told reporters she’d spoken with legislative leaders but not taken an active role in quelling the Senate drama.
“I am watching and hopefully things will improve,” Kotek said. “They’re adults. They have to figure out how to get together and get back to work.”
For the seventh consecutive day, most Republicans and one Independent senator boycotted a floor session of the chamber on Tuesday, denying Democrats a 20-member quorum necessary to conduct business.
Unlike walkouts by both parties in the past, this standoff comes with a notable deadline. Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved a law that would block lawmakers from running for re-election if they accrue 10 or more unexcused absences.
As things stood on Tuesday, four lawmakers participating in the boycott could hit the 10-absence mark by Friday.
In light of the walkout, Wagner has adopted a strict position, saying he will grant excused absences for only “extraordinary circumstances.” That has led one senator, Cedric Hayden, to file formal complaints alleging Wagner violated his religious freedoms by refusing to excuse him from floor session on a Saturday when Hayden goes to church.
Wagner told reporters on Tuesday he would not discuss his process for granting excuses in-depth since it might soon be fodder for a lawsuit.
Democrats and their allies have believed throughout the session that the new anti-walkout law, passed in Ballot Measure 113, would prevent Republicans from boycotting for an extended period of time. But some GOP lawmakers have said they are willing to test the new law, and it’s unclear whether at least four Republicans — enough to grant Democrats a quorum under the current Senate makeup — will conclude they do not want to risk cutting their political careers short.
Wednesday morning’s meeting could help dictate whether that happens.
As Knopp said on Monday: “That is the point of a walkout, you have to negotiate.”