The rift between Democrats and Republicans in the Oregon Legislature grew wider on Monday and could go fracture further this week.

Republicans marked the sixth consecutive day of denying a quorum in the Senate, blocking any floor action on a backlog of bills. House Republicans on Monday boycotted a key legislative panel as the possibility of a joining in denying a quorum in the chamber was floated as a possibility by top GOP leaders. 

“We stand with our Senate Republican colleagues - all options remain on the table for the House Republicans," House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson told the Oregon Capital Bureau late Monday.

While Republicans say Democrats are riding roughshod over state laws and legislative rules, Democrats call the GOP roadblocks an attempt to frustrate majority rule.

For Democrats, the slowdowns is parliamentary obstruction of the outcome of the November 2022 election — and a string of Democratic legislative majorities going back for more than a decade.

“It is abundantly clear that there is a concerted effort to undermine the will of the people and bring the Legislature to a halt in violation of the Constitution of the state of Oregon and the voters who put their sacred trust in our service,” said Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, last Thursday.

Battle of words as action slows to a crawl

Parliamentary moves and flurry of battling press releases swirled around the Capitol on Monday as a series of hot-button bills on abortion, transgender rights, guns and rent control percolated in the stalled Senate agenda.

The bills have passed the House and Democrats say they have the votes in the Senate to win approval of the legislation. If passed, the bills would go to Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, who supports the bills and would likely sign them into law.

Getting to the Senate vote is the challenge.

Democrats hold a 35-25 majority in the Senate and a 17-13 majority in the House. The Republican minorities are not enough to stop policy bills. But the GOP has enough members to stop all activity by denying a minimum number of lawmakers on the floor to establish a quorum.

Oregon is one of a handful of states that require more than a majority for a quorum to meet. The Oregon constitution requires two-thirds of members be present - 20 in the Senate and 40 in the House.

Hot button issues ramp up partisan moves

Republicans first organized the walkout to stop consideration of HB 2002, an abortion access and transgender rights bill approved by the House. The House also recently passed gun control legislation in HB 2005, which is waiting its initial reading in the Senate. On Monday, the Senate Rules Committee officially forwarded a bill that would cap possible future residential rent increases at 10% per year.

The Republicans' Senate strategy could spread to the House.

In a possible harbinger of a larger House slowdown, the four Republicans on the 10-member House Early Childhood and Human Services Committee said Monday they would boycott the remainder of the panel's meetings through May 19, the deadline for the committee to send any remaining bills to the House floor. Democrats are able to advance bills even without the Republicans attending.

The four Republicans on the 10-member panel said committee chair, Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D-Beaverton, and the majority Democrats were dismissive of the GOP initiatives.

"House Republican committee members are being asked to facilitate the Democratic majority’s agenda," said Rep. Anna Scharf, R-Amity, the Republican vice-chair of the committee.

For now, the House action is primarily symbolic, while the Senate is stuck in a parliamentary tangle. 

Senate Democrats get tough on absences 

Two senators — one from each party — are on long-term excused absences due to medical conditions. That leaves 28 lawmakers potentially available to get to the minimum of 20 senators present on the floor if the Senate is to meet.

Republicans have kept no more than two members on the floor for sessions since last Tuesday. With 18 senators in attendance, each day has ended quickly with a failure to meet the quorum.

In response, Sen. Wagner has put Senate sessions on a quick march pace. He's called floor sessions daily — including Saturday and Sunday. The Senate did not have a quorum either day, but the no-shows on the roll call move closer to a threshold that leads to political repercussions.

Democrats have used the quorum in the past when they were the minority party. But Republicans have walked out in 2019, 2020, 2021 and now 2023 to stall the Democratic agenda. The 2020 walkout ran through the constitutional end of the 35-day session, killing hundreds of bills. 

A Democratic-backed effort to curb the practice was launched for the 2022 election. Measure 113, approved in November 2022 with 68% of voters in support, would punish lawmakers who have 10 or more unexcused absences as taking part in "disorderly behavior." They are barred from re-election to their current office. 

"Except for those who might have decided not to run again anyway, it’s a serious consequence," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. 

GOP going after "excused" absence decisions

Republicans moved to challenge how Wagner has granted or denied excused absences. Early last week, several Republicans had excused absences, such as Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, who was in Boardman in Morrow County with Kotek to tour areas where drinking water has been polluted with large amounts of nitrates.

Wagner's announcement that he would no longer automatically approve excused absences until a quorum is reached led on Monday to allegations ranging from religious discrimination to denying lawmakers requests to be absent for medical appointments. 

Wagner has called another session for Tuesday. 

GOP presses claims of procedural flaws even after court setback

Republicans recently claimed that along with the abortion and other issues in the bills, they are challenging the Democrats for violating the minimum reading level of legislative analysis of the bills produced for lawmakers. Under a 1979 law, bills are to be written to an approximately 8th-grade reading level.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, accused Wagner of disregarding the law. A Marion District Court judge last week declined to hear a petition by Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook backed by a House Republican lawmaker and the advocacy group Oregon Right To Life arguing that the Senate should not consider HB 2002 until court challenges on the reading level issues were heard. 

Republicans say Wagner's attempt to add floor sessions was political payback.

"In our view, it’s clear that Wagner is retaliating," said Ashley Kuenzi, Senate Republican Caucus communications director. "His arbitrary and capricious behavior continues to prove Senator Knopp’s assessment of Wagner right: that he is untrustworthy, deeply partisan, and lacks the necessary skills to run the Senate in a bipartisan fashion."

Republicans say they will seek additional court rulings on the reading proficiency level law. They also said for the first time said they expect to challenge Wagner's use of excused and unexcused absences as unconstitutional. A court challenge to the constitutionality of Measure 113 is possible if other legal avenues are dead ends.

UPDATE MAY 9, 11:00 am: Absent Republicans again left the Senate short of a quorum on Tuesday. Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, attended the session, as he has every day since the the walkout began. Sen. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, was also on the floor. With 16 Democrats in attendance, the tally again left the Senate with 18 lawmakers recorded as present - two short of the 20 required by the Oregon Constitution to hold any business. Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, adjourned for the day and called for a floor session at 10:30am on Wednesday.


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