State Rep. Rob Nosse did battle over House Bill 2002.
Before the bill became the catalyst for a Republican walkout threatening to derail this year’s legislative session, it was a controversial measure in the House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee that Nosse chairs. The Portland Democrat presided over hours of hearings on the measure, clashing repeatedly with Republican opponents.
When HB 2002 got a vote in the Oregon House, Nosse offered a closing argument that included a deeply personal story about his daughter deciding to have a baby when she was 18.
These days, however, Nosse says he’s made peace with HB 2002 -- and every other bill -- dying.
“I did all my crying and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” Nosse told OPB last week. “I’ve been processing it for weeks.”
Like an increasing number of state lawmakers and lobbyists, Nosse sees no likely solution to the Republican walkout that has halted action in the Oregon Senate for a month. But few others are willing to be so blunt about it.
“Last week I finally called a smart person in the [House] speaker’s office,” Nosse said. “I said, ‘What’s the best use of my time?’ They said, ‘Get ready for 2024.’ That’s what I’ve been doing.”
The events of the past week have done little to dispel his outlook. With neither side showing any hint of backing down, the 2023 session looks increasingly like a mere intellectual exercise.
On Wednesday, Gov. Tina Kotek declared an impasse, citing the disagreement over HB 2002 as the main factor.
The governor said she’d once again defer to legislative leaders to settle their differences. Instead, Senate Democrats promptly signaled they’d begin fining Republicans $325 for every day they’re absent.
A similar effort fizzled in 2019, when then-Senate President Peter Courtney elected not to pursue fines. Still, the announcement set off a fresh round of invective in press releases from both parties.
“Senate Republicans don’t feel compelled to entertain [Senate President Rob Wagner’s] political theater,” Sen. Tim Knopp, the Republican leader, said in a statement. “In fact, we suggest President Wagner pay our fines since it is his behavior that galvanized our protest.”
Democrats have refused to alter HB 2002, which expands protections for abortion and gender affirming care. The party argues it remained in power last year because voters were alarmed that Roe v. Wade had been overturned, and eager for Democrats to act. They also note that Republicans have said they want to kill more than a dozen bills, not just the abortion proposal.
Republicans say the bill extends far beyond the issues voters care about, and that it’s a symptom of Democrats flexing their power for its own sake. Among a wide range of conditions they’ve suggested could bring them back, 10 boycotting senators have seemed to place killing or modifying HB 2002 at the top of the list.
While some major proposals have already been signed into law, hundreds of others appear likely to perish. Democrats say they will reject an offer from GOP senators to return for the last day of session — a tactic that would give the minority party final say in which bills pass.
“I still have lots of hope that we’re going to be able to get good work done for Oregonians,” said state Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland, a chief sponsor of the abortion bill. “I don’t think that it’s a secret that HB 2002 along with other significant priorities are at risk.”
Some Democrats believe Kotek should send state police to force Republicans back to the Senate chamber. That’s a tactic that then-Gov. Kate Brown tried in 2019 without success. GOP lawmakers simply fled the state to avoid being rounded up.
This year, boycotting Republicans have been allowed to walk the Capitol freely with no fear of being forced to the Senate chamber to grant a quorum. Kotek’s office said Thursday she had no current plans to involve troopers.
The walkout has sapped attention from all but the most vital legislative priorities.
On Thursday, Republicans convened an unofficial legislative committee they’d created to solicit and investigate complaints about government corruption. Every person who testified instead scolded the GOP over the walkout.
Both parties continue to work out a state budget, though there’s no sign that one will be approved before the session ends on June 25. Lawmakers have until Sept. 15 to pass a budget in order to avoid defunding state agencies.
With the Senate unable to function, the House has nearly run out of bills to pass. The chamber is expected to hold only one floor session this week.
One thing Democrats say they will not do is concede any piece of HB 2002. Among its provisions, the bill would ensure children of any age don’t need a parent’s permission to get an abortion — a safety valve that, while extremely rare, Democrats and some physicians insist is necessary in severe cases of abuse.
The bill would also expand gender-affirming care procedures that insurance companies must cover, protect abortion providers in Oregon from consequences in anti-abortion states, expand abortion access in rural Oregon and on college campuses, and more.
Republicans have seized on two pieces of the bill — the lack of parental consent for abortions of children and expansion of gender affirming care coverage — as their central protest. State Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, among the most outspoken opponents of the bill, says Democrats are overstepping what Oregon voters want.
“When the Democratic caucus is willing to just absolutely steamroll us on things that are not popular with Oregonians — that they didn’t campaign on but are just their politically ambitious agenda items — I don’t know what else we can do,” Bonham said. He is one of 10 conservative lawmakers who might not be able to run for reelection because of the boycott.
Nosse said Thursday he expects Democrats in both chambers will hold firm on HB 2002, even if some would prefer to jettison the bill to ensure that hundreds of other bills at risk of dying are allowed to pass. He says the party owes it to voters who kept them in power.
“In 2022 we have the most unpopular governor in the U.S,” Nosse said, referring to former Gov. Kate Brown. “We have an unpopular president. We have high inflation. We have people all over the state mad about houseless camping and government programs not working.”
Nosse said those realities could have spelled doom for Democrats, who have controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the last decade. “Guess what? Didn’t happen.”
Democrats believe they have the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade to thank. And they say they’re determined to deliver new protections. Kotek, Senate President Wagner, and House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, have all said they won’t negotiate away HB 2002, but there are hints that at least minor concessions could be possible.
In recent days, some Democrats have floated the idea of removing the emergency clause on HB 2002. That would ensure the bill isn’t effective immediately. More importantly, pulling the emergency clause also allows opponents to refer the matter to voters. Democrats had not formally made that offer late last week, and it’s not clear it would be enough to get Republicans back to the Senate.
“That would have to be a conversation with our caucus and the House Democrats,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, another chief sponsor of HB 2002, who is still holding out hope for the session. “I wouldn’t say never to that one but we haven’t discussed it in any kind of formal way.”
But Nosse, at least, no longer believes the bill is likely this year — or even during next year’s monthlong short session, where it could easily incite another walkout. He expects to take up the matter in 2025.
“We’ll try again,” he said.