The ongoing walkout by Senate Republicans hit a meaningful milestone Thursday, as the bulk of the chamber’s GOP members opted to remain absent and potentially forfeit their ability to run again.
Six Republicans — Sens. Tim Knopp, Lynn Findley, Bill Hansell, Kim Thatcher, Art Robinson and Suzanne Weber — did not attend a scheduled floor session, each notching their 10th unexcused absence of the session. That’s the threshold, approved overwhelmingly by voters last year with Measure 113, at which lawmakers are disqualified from serving their next term.
The six lawmakers join four others — Sens. Daniel Bonham, Cedric Hayden, Dennis Linthicum and Brian Boquist, a former Republican who is now a registered Independent — who hit the mark earlier this week.
The moment was not surprising, given Republicans’ insistence that they would not allow Democrats to pass bills on abortion, gender affirming care and gun safety that they deem extreme. It was, however, significant.
Pushed by Democratic allies in public sector unions, Measure 113 was supposed to curtail walkouts Republicans have used increasingly to stymie bills. But as of now the measure is failing, and with 10 senators now past an apparent point of no return, it is unclear what leverage will bring them back to the building. Republicans have made clear they will challenge Measure 113 in court.
Three Republicans — Dick Anderson, David Brock Smith and Fred Girod — have fewer than 10 absences. Their presence would theoretically be enough to grant the chamber a 20-person quorum if all Democrats are present. But both Girod and Democratic Sen. Chris Gorsek have been absent for weeks for health reasons.
During a brief session cut short again by the lack of a quorum, lawmakers focused on the elephants not in the room.
“Today is another extremely challenging day for Oregon,” Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said when it was clear Republicans were not present. “I’ve never seen a situation like this. It is unique, it is beyond disappointing, it is troubling and frankly it is saddening.”
Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, one of two Republicans in attendance Thursday, rose to commend his colleagues for staying away.
“Here we are as they spend their time working still selflessly and tirelessly defending the transparency of this body, to follow the constitution of this body and the state of Oregon,” Brock Smith said. “And more importantly defending the parental rights of every Oregonian in this state.”
Brock Smith was alluding to two reasons Republicans have offered for the walkout: an insistence that Democrats are not following legal process to advance bills, and their opposition to House Bill 2002, which among its provisions would ensure that children of any age could receive an abortion without parental permission.
Negotiations between the two parties began last week and stretched over the weekend, but apparently broke down by Monday.
“I will say this, we went through eleven hours and 45 minutes of what we thought was good-faith negotiations,” Wagner said during a briefing with reporters.
In the last 15 minutes, Wagner said, Republicans zeroed in on the bills they wanted killed, which included legislation strengthening gun laws, addressing gender-affirming care and the Democrats’ push to include the right to abortion, same-sex marriage and gender-affirming care written into the state’s constitution.
Democrats have insisted they are not willing to jettison the gender-affirming care measure, HB 2002 or their central gun safety bill, House Bill 2005 or the push to enshrine abortion rights into the state’s constitution.
Wagner said his caucus is not willing to water the bills down and will take the weekend to regroup.
Wagner, the Lake Oswego lawmaker appointed to the Senate in 2018, said the Legislature has never had to navigate a situation where members were constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. “This is a little bit of new ground for us,” he said. “So, I think we need an opportunity to kind of catch our breath, talk to our caucus, talk to the House, you know, and kind of figure out what, what the other tools exist.”
Wagner said he’s not willing to convert any of the Republican senators’ unexcused absences to excused as part of the negotiations.
“I will not be using that tool,” Wagner said, still holding out hope the Republicans will appear on the floor.
“We only need one,” to make a quorum.
Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, dismissed much of what Wagner had to say.
“I said from the very beginning, before (the Democrats) elected him president, he was untrustworthy,” Knopp said of Wagner. “I said he was deeply partisan and he didn’t have the skills to operate the Senate in a bipartisan way. He has proved me right, almost on a weekly basis.”
In an interview, Knopp said he believes the minority party is in charge of holding the majority accountable.
“They want to be able to break the rules that they want to break. They want to be able to break the laws, they want to be able to take stacks of cash from donors that have serious business and ethical problems,” Knopp said. “They just want to do what they want to do because they have the votes and we’re saying that’s the tyranny of the majority and it will not stand.”
“And so we are out. The Senate Republicans are defending democracy because Rob Wagner has driven democracy into a ditch” Knopp said.
What comes next is unclear. Gov. Tina Kotek said Wednesday she has stayed largely out of discussions.
“I’m doing a lot of listening, a lot of cajoling, a lot of, ‘Hey, there’s an expectation here please get back to work,’” Kotek, a Democrat, told reporters.
Whether Kotek will intervene more fully now is not clear. The governor has said she would consider calling a special session if lawmakers cannot pass a budget by June 25, when the session is scheduled to adjourn. She has also held out the possibility she could send state troopers after truant Republicans — something she’d earlier ruled out.
“I haven’t changed my mind on that at this point,” Kotek said. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t. I’m treating people with respect. Get back to work. I don’t need to chase you down.”