UPDATE (Feb. 18, 8:11 p.m. PT) — The first walkout of the 2020 legislative session has arrived.
Criticizing a session they say is moving too quickly, Republicans refused to attend a floor session of the Oregon House on Tuesday evening. Lawmakers showed up to the House chamber at 6 p.m. with Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, the only Republican in attendance.
With the no-show, Republicans denied Democrats the two-thirds quorum needed to conduct business — stymieing progress as the chamber works to meet legislative deadlines.
“Tonight is really about pacing of the session and pacing of floor movement and allowing our members to have a little bit more time in between,” Drazan said Tuesday, telegraphing her caucus’ plans. “The schedule is a little bit grueling for the level of issues that are coming before us in committees right now.”
By the time the evening session rolled around, five Republicans had submitted excuses for their absences to House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office. Sixteen others had not.
Democrats sat in the House chamber for an hour, occasionally huddling to discuss amendments on upcoming bills. Sergeants-at-arms were dispatched to search the Capitol for absent members, but didn’t return with any.
At 7 p.m., Kotek announced a quorum wasn’t present. But before adjourning the chamber, she removed Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, from his position as co-chair of a budget subcommittee, replacing him with Democratic Rep. Pam Marsh.
Smith, who has been a Democratic ally on key issues, was the only Republican to hold a chairmanship in the House.
“Being a chair comes with an extra set of responsibilities and expectations,” Kotek, D-Portland, said in a statement Tuesday evening. “Not only did Rep. Smith not come to work tonight, he didn’t submit an excuse for his absence.”
The specter of a potential Republican walkout has long loomed over the 2020 session, as GOP members have vowed to do anything they can to stop a bill aimed at curbing global warming that they believe will damage Oregon’s economy.
But Drazan’s announcement on Tuesday put forward a strategy few considered: That Republicans might selectively refuse to show up based on how they’re feeling about the schedule Democratic leadership has set for a given day.
Drazan made clear her members would be in the building Wednesday morning, “with a smile on our face and ready to get back to work.” But she said her caucus would continue to assess whether the pacing of floor sessions meets its approval.
“We’ll have this conversation again tomorrow,” Drazan said. “What does the floor look like on that day?”
Republicans have already taken one unorthodox step to slow the movement of legislation through the House. The caucus has declined to waive rules mandating that bills be read in full before final passage — a concession that until recently was granted by the minority party with few exceptions.
The refusal to waive rules has caused meetings of the full House to drag on far longer than they would typically. The Tuesday evening floor session, in fact, was scheduled earlier in the day, after a series of lengthy bill readings ensured that the chamber’s business would not be completed in a single meeting.
But the late notice for an evening session rubbed Republicans the wrong way, according to state Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, the deputy minority leader.
“We had a lot of people that had plans,” Bonham said. “We also felt like it was unreasonable.”
Bonham says his caucus had discussed how to respond to evening and weekend sessions scheduled by Kotek, but that “it wasn’t until today that we had to make a decision.”
He added: “I’ve never seen our caucus more united.”
Helt, the sole Republican to attend the floor session, represents a Central Oregon district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. She declined to discuss her presence with reporters afterward, but did draft a statement.
“My attendance tonight was my way of protesting the failure of the majority party to respect the legitimate concerns of my Repubilcan colleagues,” it said in part.
In a meeting with reporters, Drazan said Republicans are intent on slowing the rapid pace of bills moving through the building. She suggested that, beyond a few budgetary tweaks, there is no legislation that must pass during this 35-day session.
“Why would we waive rules?” she said “There are some budget glitches that we really do need to fix and we have ample opportunity to do that … There’s really no cause to expedite the process inside this building.”
Kotek responded to Drazan’s announcement by calling on Republicans to reconsider, and explaining the rationale for calling an evening floor session.
“To this point, I have respected the House Republicans’ desire to read bills in full,” Kotek said in a statement “Doing so requires more floor time in order to meet the session’s deadlines and move bills over to the Senate. Our deadlines require that we move bills that have passed out of policy committees off the House floor by Thursday.”
In past walkouts — including one of the two carried out by Senate Republicans last year — Democrats asked the governor to send Oregon State Police after lawmakers to force them to come to work.
“The reality is the bills get carried forward to tomorrow morning,” said Bonham. “We will be there ready to work.”