On the first day of the 2020 legislative session, Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, stood at the dais overseeing the Oregon Senate with the help of a physical therapist and a nearby walker.
Courtney was recovering from a staph infection but was determined to be present in January for the opening day of the legislative session.
On the morning of Feb. 28, Courtney, the state’s longest-ever serving president, presided over a half-empty chamber, one which Senate Republicans have boycotted now for more than a week.
In classic Courtney fashion, he gave a speech where his emotions fluctuated from anger to disappointment to sadness.
He spoke to the importance of showing up to work.
“I’m here,” Courtney told the chamber. “Limping. Walker. But here.”
From the start of the current legislative session, Democrats knew Republicans in the Senate were likely to stage another walkout to try to kill sweeping climate change legislation. Last week, they left town. And in a surprise move, House Republicans joined them a day later in fleeing the Capitol.
“I’m getting angrier and angrier and angry, because I don’t understand human beings who leave after the first half,” Courtney said, his voice increasingly rising in pitch. “I don’t understand it. To me, you wear the uniform — you wear the uniform. You may not agree with it … You come to work. Who doesn’t go to work? I don’t understand it.”
The two sides now appear to be at a complete impasse: Republicans want the cap-and-trade bill referred to the voters; Democrats want it passed in the Legislature.
At this point of a legislative session, lawmakers would normally be finalizing state budgets and a flurry of activity would precede the final stretch leading to adjournment.
Instead, mornings in the Capitol have a new ritual.
The presiding officers — both Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek — speak to the bills that will perish if Republicans don’t return to Salem.
“I’m just going to get really angry here,” Courtney said, reading the title of a bill addressing out-of-state placements for youth in foster care, “Oregon children and youth … I’m gonna tell ya, I never was a foster child. I can’t even imagine what it’s like and when you’re out-of-state all alone … I’m going to tell you this session should never end without us seriously making a run at that.”
And instead of passing legislation, lawmakers are strategizing how to convince Republicans to return.
House Democrats plan to issue subpoenas to require absent Republicans’ attendance in the Capitol. The subpoenas would theoretically require lawmakers to appear before a House Rules Committee on March 5, but it’s unclear whether they will compel Republicans to return. They have hired a process server company to help deliver the subpoenas.
Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said the Republicans’ latest decision to walk out “cannot be the new normal.”
Senate Republicans fled the Capitol twice in the previous legislative session, effectively derailing the cap-and-trade bill which has once again prompted their exodus.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan blasted the Democrats’ latest move, calling it a strong-arm tactic.
But it’s not a new strategy.
In 2001, the Democrats were in the minority and fled the Capitol over a redistricting dispute.
Republicans tried to bring them back by hiring private process servers to deliver a summons compelling them to the Capitol. In fact, Drazan worked for the House Speaker in those days.
At the time, Democrats couldn’t be found. They eventually returned to work willingly.