After staying out of the impasse for weeks, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek is stepping up her efforts to end a standoff between Senate Democrats and Republicans.
But after several meetings between the governor and boycotting GOP lawmakers, the conflict showed little sign of abating Tuesday morning.
Once again, all but two Republicans were absent from a Senate floor session, denying Democrats the quorum necessary to conduct business.
In a statement shortly after the walkout officially hit day 15, Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, pledged his members would return on June 25 — the day the session is scheduled to adjourn under constitutional deadlines — in order to pass “lawful, substantially bipartisan budgets and bills.”
Such a return would amount to a Republican veto, where the minority party could dictate which bills it allows to be fast-tracked to passage in a single day while it blocks others. Democrats have said they are unwilling to agree to those terms.
“That is not negotiating in good faith,” House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, told reporters on Tuesday. “That is hostage taking. That is 10 members subverting the will of the Legislature unilaterally.”
Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, said in a statement Democrats “will be here, doing our jobs, ready to pass the budget and act on urgent Oregon priorities today, tomorrow, and every day until session ends.”
Republicans, meanwhile, portrayed Democrats’ avowal not to cooperate as a threat. ”Democrat leadership including [Senate President Rob Wagner] are threatening to shut down the government if they don’t get their way,” Knopp said in a press release. “That is no way to govern.”
The lack of movement from either side suggested that — at least early on — Kotek has been unable to move the needle.
The governor first met with Republican Senators on Monday morning, though she complained to reporters afterward that it was “disrespectful” that most refused to attend in person. Kotek met with Knopp one-on-one Monday afternoon, his office said, and again with Republicans on Tuesday. She told reporters with the Oregon Capitol Chronicle and KATU that her main purpose in meetings has been to listen and not to negotiate.
But the Democratic governor’s heft with the opposing party has its limits.
Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, served in the House when Kotek — then the House speaker — backed out of a deal granting minority Republicans equal say as the state drew new Congressional and legislative maps. He said on Monday he has a hard time trusting anything the governor says.
“It’s tough,” Bonham said. “She is so used to getting her way and she believes she has compromised. But compromise for Tina Kotek is … ‘I’m going to give you 100 lashes … OK, we’ll do 90 instead of 100 and you should be grateful, you should be thankful.’”
Bonham said he felt like the governor didn’t approach Monday’s meeting with an open mind. Instead, he said, she came to reiterate the message that Democrats are unwilling to bend on House Bill 2002, the bill expanding protections for abortion and transgender care that prompted the walkout.
“You’re going to face House Bill 2002 no matter what’” Bonham said, characterizing the governor’s stance. “She delivered that message loud and clear.”
Republicans walked away May 3, and have offered a number of reasons for their continued absence. A big part of the boycott is based on HB 2002 and other bills touching on abortion protection, along with a slate of gun restrictions Democrats are pushing.
Many, like Bonham, take exception to a provision in HB 2002 that would ensure children of any age can receive an abortion without notifying their parents.
“We recognize Democrats won elections, but some of these things like the assault on parental rights, they didn’t campaign on this stuff,” he said.
Republicans also argue that Democrats have advanced legislation in violation of a 1979 law that says summaries of bills must be written at roughly an eighth-grade reading level. In order to set the table for a possible return, Senate Republicans have been quietly rewriting summaries of bills they support to ensure they comply with the law.
“We have guaranteed we’re returning to session, June 25th is the latest we will return,” Knopp said on Monday. “We will suspend the rules, we will suspend the readings and we will pass substantially bipartisan bills for members.”
Wagner has suggested repeatedly he would opt to end the legislative session early rather than allow Republicans to return purely on their own terms. He compares the ongoing standoff to 2020, when Kotek, as House speaker, adjourned the legislative session in the face of a GOP walkout.
‘You don’t get to come back with 12 hours left… and determine just the bills and the budgets that you want to vote on,” Wagner said last week, paraphrasing a speech Kotek made at the time. “The same standard is going to apply here.”
A spokesman for Wagner said Tuesday there is no plan to end the session early.
Rayfield — the House speaker somewhat insulated from the conflict by sunnier relations on his side of the Capitol — said on Tuesday he is holding out hope the impasse will not completely upend the session. He’s hoping the almighty dollar and the power of legislation that’s vital to constituents will woo Republicans back.
“You’re going to see a rural development package and a drought package that legislators have been working on,” Rayfield said. ‘There’s a lot of good for a lot of these things in their districts. When you continue to engage in… these very caustic political tactics, you jeopardize the very things that are going to help your own districts and your own members.”