News, Politics, Salem

Oregon Senate Republican walkout ends with compromises

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

Oregon Senate leaders on Thursday reached a deal that brought a handful of Republicans back to the floor, ending the longest walkout in state history and clearing the way for the Legislature to pass a budget and start working through hundreds of backlogged bills. 

The deal reached Thursday included watering down Democratic measures intended to guarantee abortion access and prevent gun violence, as well as considering a Republican proposal that would allow the Legislature to impeach statewide elected officials. Democrats also agreed to rework a sweeping constitutional amendment that would have removed an unenforceable ban on same-sex marriage and prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ people. 

Democrats and Republicans also reached a deal to “substantively” fund 9-8-8, a hotline for people in mental health crises. And senators read new, easier-to-read descriptions of each bill before voting on each measure, another concession to Republicans who initially said they walked out over the Legislature violating an obscure state law that requires bill summaries to be written at an eighth-grade reading level.

“I’m encouraged that we were able to come to an agreement that will allow us to finish the important work Oregonians sent us here to accomplish. We have achieved major bipartisan victories already this session, and I expect that to continue now that we have returned to the floor,” Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said in a statement announcing the deal. “I am grateful for all the senators who listened to each other and sought an end to this walkout while protecting Oregon priorities and values.”

Other details of the deal weren’t immediately clear Thursday as five Republicans joined Democratic colleagues on the Senate floor for the first time since May 3. 

“A quorum is present,” Wagner announced from the dais. 

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, described Republicans’ presence as a show of good faith, saying he wanted to finish the session “in an extraordinary bipartisan way.”

“For our part, we are here for the quorum today in good faith to work through this calendar so thank you, Mr. President,” Knopp said after the roll call.

What came next illustrated just how long it has been since the Senate came to work. A Senate employee speed-read the titles of more than 120 bills sent by the House over the past month before the chamber moved onto voting on bills.

Senate Republicans, joined by Sen. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas, have boycotted floor sessions to voice objections for evolving reasons. They first cited the readability law. They also tried to kill different proposals, including House Bill 2002 on abortion access and gender-affirming care. Republican senators have focused on a provision that would allow minors of any age to obtain abortions without parental notification.

In a statement after his floor remarks, Knopp said he and other legislators who joined the walkout successfully defended parental rights, though he didn’t give details of what potential amendments will look like.

“I am pleased to say that we were able to hold the Democrat majority accountable and accomplish all these things,” Knopp said in his statement. “We achieved constitutional, lawful bipartisanship. And parental rights were restored.”

Senate Democrats claimed victory for keeping intact a key aim of House Bill 2002, which preserves abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“If the Republicans had not returned this session, we faced the reality that no additional bills would have passed,” Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Southeast Portland, said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. “They could have stayed away, blocking every single progressive priority: no reproductive health care rights, no gun control, and no rights for the transgender community.”

Proposed amendments to House Bills 2002 and 2005 posted later on Thursday. One would require health care providers to tell parents or guardians about abortions for patients younger than 15 unless the provider determines that involving a parent could result in abuse or neglect or a second health care provider with a different facility agrees that it wouldn’t be in the child’s best interest to involve a parent.

The proposed amendment also would delete provisions of the bill establishing grants for reproductive and abortion care at college campuses and rural areas.

House Bill 2005 will be rewritten so it only bans “ghost guns,” or untraceable homemade firearms. Wagner said in a statement that the Legislature will also establish a workgroup to study policy solutions for gun violence and deposit $10 million in the Community Violence Prevention Program.

The capitol was abuzz earlier in the day, as Wagner scurried between his office and the majority office and twice delayed the start of the floor session. Walking past reporters on his way to announce the first delay, Wagner gave a grin and two thumbs up. 

By 10:30 a.m., Knopp and Republican Sens. Dick Anderson, Bill Hansell, David Brock Smith, Daniel Bonham and Lynne Findley were cloistered in their caucus room on the third floor, with lobbyists gathered outside. Anderson and Brock Smith have attended every day and only one more Republican was needed to reach a quorum. All five showed up. 

The Oregon Firearms Federation, a pro-gun organization, sent an alert earlier Thursday decrying Knopp for reaching a deal with Democrats on gun control measure HB 2005. 

“Once again, Republican ‘leadership’ has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” the group wrote. “Another disgrace for the people who got hired to protect our rights.”

House members and staff, who finished voting on almost every available bill on Thursday, crowded the back of the Senate chamber and an upstairs gallery to watch. 

After the walkout persisted for a month, Senate Democrats started to impose $325-a-day fines for each senator without an excused absence. That did not deter senators from skipping floor sessions, though.

Neither did a constitutional amendment voters passed in November, that prevents legislators from serving a new term of office after they rack up at least 10 unexcused absences.

Boquist and nine Republican senators reached 10 absences, though it’s uncertain whether senators will actually face either consequence. Senators have indicated court challenges to that amendment are likely, and they also question if the state can collect the fines.

Most legislative Democrats now support changing quorum rules to prevent future walkouts, though the future of that bill, and hundreds of others, depends on how much time lawmakers have to complete their work before the June 25 deadline to end the session. 

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