The Oregon Capitol was abuzz Friday over a potential deal that could end the ongoing Republican walkout in the Senate.
The problem: Few of those buzzing could say what the deal might actually include.
Some staffers and lawmakers gloomily predicted the bills they consider a priority would die as a result of an agreement to bring conservative senators back into the building. Others voiced hope Senate leaders would find a way to negotiate the most contentious bills of session while leaving other proposals untouched. One lawmaker predicted most bills would be sacrificed in the name of passing a budget, though top Senate Democrats insist they’ll hold fast to a commitment to pass bills expanding abortion protections, transgender care, and gun laws.
What is clear is that hope for an end to the five-week walkout has been rekindled in recent days partly because of a friendship between two lawmakers: Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland. They’ve been working actively to plot a path out of the legislative morass, with Taylor acting as a trusted go-between after earlier discussions proved fruitless.
“I’d pay a compliment to Taylor and Knopp, who have worked together for years and have a good relationship,” said state Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, noting the pair have been “having impactful conversations that are finding room for compromise.”
The product of those discussions was being shopped to legislative leaders Friday afternoon, with no sign of whether or not it would ultimately find favor with members of both parties.
Adding to the potential progress, Democrats say, is that Republicans came to the table with a specific list of things they might want, including bills and wish lists for the next two-year budget.
“We weren’t going to do their work for them,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, who’s also been involved in negotiations. “Now they finally did the work. This is super important to understand. We were ready to receive that work.”
Lieber refused to discuss what concessions or budget goodies are at play. But she repeated Democrats’ mantra of the last five weeks: The two most contentious bills of the session — legislation expanding protections for abortion and transgender care and tightening gun ownership laws — would not be abandoned.
“I can tell you that we’re definitely not going to kill [House Bill] 2002,” Lieber said, referring to a the bill covering abortion access and gender care. Democrats are also holding firm on their refusal to scrap House Bill 2005, a proposal to raise the legal age to own a gun from 18 to 21, among other things, Lieber said.
That doesn’t mean either of those bills would ultimately look the same under a deal as they did before conservative lawmakers walked away on May 3 to deny the Senate the quorum required to vote on legislation.
Lawmakers and staff in both parties say a key bargaining point has been a portion of House Bill 2002 that allows children of any age to get an abortion without parental consent. That provision is seen as necessary by Democrats and their allies, who say it could act as a lifeline of necessary care to children in abusive situations. Republicans say the provision represents an assault on parental rights.
How the two sides can forge a policy that might satisfy both their concerns is unclear. Bonham said they have been “trying to figure out if there is a room for an amendment and compromise,” and he feels like there is “finally a conversation being had.”
Some lawmakers also expect the gun safety bill, HB 2005, might be modified in any walkout-ending compromise. That includes one of the bill’s chief sponsors, state Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth.
“I think the telltale signs of a negotiation at this point would probably include some kind of modification of 2002, 2005 and probably another handful of bills,” Evans said. “That said: How you do it, when you do it, why you do it — all that stuff is, at this point, a matter of speculation.”
Taylor and Knopp have worked closely over the years on important and fractious policy — maybe none more than the 2021 redistricting process, in which they served as their parties’ respective leads on a committee to draw new political maps. While House lawmakers fought bitterly over those maps — Republicans briefly refused to come to the Capitol over them — the Senate process was comparatively smooth.
Taylor, who unsuccessfully sought her party’s nomination for Senate president last year, has been capitalizing on that cachet to attempt to find a resolution to the impasse. Knopp, the Republican leader, has made no secret of his personal distaste for current Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego.
As of Friday afternoon, legislative leaders were still in talks. Rank-and-file members of both parties said they were unclear on what a deal would look like.
One lawmaker who has been working to resolve the standoff, Heppner Republican Rep. Greg Smith, said his expectation was that Democrats and Republicans would agree to shelve policy proposals in the name of passing a two-year budget before the current one runs out July 1.
“What I’m hearing is [Republicans will return for] the last three days,” Smith said, adding he believed lawmakers would take up only “bills that are specifically related to the budget or bills that for one reason or another have a high degree of significance.”
Like everyone else reached for this story, however, Smith said it was all subject to change.
The Legislature must adjourn by June 25.
OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this report.