Top lawmakers appeared to near a deal over the weekend to end a weeks-long standoff threatening to scuttle hundreds of bills remaining in Oregon’s legislative session
While stressing that any agreement would still need to be approved by rank-and-file lawmakers — not a sure thing — three people briefed on the matter said a framework hammered out over the course of 10 hours of negotiations includes major concessions by Democrats on bills creating new abortion protections and gun restrictions. The sources declined to speak on the record, citing ongoing discussions.
Such an agreement would amount to a notable turnabout for the majority party. Top Democrats have said repeatedly they would not negotiate those priorities in the face of a Republican walkout.
If it moves forward, the deal would be a win in one respect for Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and his colleagues, who would have succeeded in watering down the policies they most oppose in exchange for allowing other bills to pass unfettered.
“I believe everyone is working in good faith right now to find a resolution,” Knopp said Monday.
Victory might come at a painful cost, however. Ten Senators – nine Republicans and one Independent – who have refused to attend floor sessions for nearly six weeks could be unable to run for reelection under a ballot measure passed by voters last year.
In exchange for GOP lawmakers returning to the Senate and foregoing delay tactics, Democrats are considering scaling back House Bill 2002, a proposal that expands protections for abortion and transgender care.
Crucially, that would include softening language in the bill that currently ensures a child of any age can receive an abortion without parental consent, two sources said. The provision has been a central sticking point, and a leading reason Republicans offered for walking away May 3.
Rather than doing away with a requirement that parents be notified in order for a child under 15 to end a pregnancy, new language would potentially allow a health care provider to override such a requirement in cases where parental involvement is deemed harmful. Democrats agreed to nix portions of the bill expanding abortion access on university campuses and in rural parts of the state.
Other pieces would remain, including an expansion of what gender-affirming care must be covered by insurance plans and protections for Oregon abortion providers who conduct abortions for patients who travel from anti-abortion states. Democrats believe their primary aims for HB 2002 would remain intact if those changes stick.
Under the framework being floated to members, Democrats also might scale back an omnibus gun safety proposal, House Bill 2005. The bill included three major provisions when it passed the House in early May: prohibiting ghost guns that can’t be traced by authorities, raising the age to possess most firearms from 18 to 21 and allowing local governments to ban concealed guns.
Under the tentative deal, only the ghost gun provision would survive, though lawmakers also might create a task force to address suicide by gun.
Another main piece of a potential agreement, according to sources: Democrats would agree to kill Senate Joint Resolution 33, which would ask voters to enshrine protections for abortion, same-sex marriage and gender-affirming care in the state constitution. The party could still pass a ballot referral next year in time for the 2024 election.
While specifics are far from certain, a deal also might involve a number of other bills important to Republicans – including legislation to restructure the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission – along with possible budget goodies for rural counties, according to one version relayed to OPB.
In exchange, Republicans would agree to attend floor sessions in the Senate, and grant permissions to speed along many Democratic priorities, according to two people familiar with negotiations..
The possible breakthrough comes after renewed hopes emerged last week that the Legislative session could be rescued from the threat posed by the ongoing walkout. Six lawmakers met for roughly 10 hours over the course of two days to achieve the framework. They are: Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego; Knopp; House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis; House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville; Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland; and Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale.
Senate Republicans met Sunday evening. Other lawmakers were expected to be briefed Monday. Serious objections on one side or the other could upend an agreement or send legislative leaders back to the negotiating table, but at least one lawmaker was publicly signaling hope.
“It’s too soon for me to say much of anything about these negotiations, but I can say that they are promising at this point,” Sen. Michael Dembrow said in a newsletter to constituents Sunday night. “If they work out, we could be back voting on the Senate floor by midweek. The agreement would allow us a clear path to clearing the backlog of bills that are currently on the Senate bill list in time for Sine Die (end of session on June 25).”
If it moves forward, the deal would mark a dramatic turnaround for a session that had appeared to be teetering on the edge of collapse a week ago. Again and again since Republicans walked away from the Senate, leading Democrats have insisted they were not willing to bargain over abortion and gun control bills.
“Let me be clear, House Bill 2002 is not up for negotiation,” Wagner told reporters on May 9.
Nine days later, he said: “We are not going to negotiate away 2002. The idea of a kill list doesn’t exist anymore.”
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, told OPB Democrats would remain insistent and “not walk back our values.”
But the gravity of the continued standoff might prove too consequential to ignore.
With hundreds of bills at risk – and financing for state agencies about to enter shaky territory – Democrats might opt to trade away some of their priorities in service of furthering a larger agenda.
That would show that legislative walkouts continue to be a potent weapon in Oregon, despite an effort by Democrats and their allies to blunt them. Last year’s Ballot Measure 113 attempted to end walkouts by blocking any lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from running for reelection.
The measure passed overwhelmingly, but it didn’t dissuade Republicans from using the tactic. The GOP argues it also could run afoul of the first amendment, and that – at very least – its ambiguous wording creates questions about what the measure actually does.
Democrats believe 10 of the state’s 13 conservative senators will soon be out of a job, a steep price to pay for any victory achieved in a deal.
OPB Reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this report.