Weekend negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans proved fruitless Monday, as the GOP’s walkout extended into a crucial 10th day.
With no Republicans present for a morning floor session, three state senators — Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Beatty, Sen. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas — have now accrued 10 unexcused absences. That’s a key threshold: Under a law voters overwhelmingly approved last year, any lawmaker with at least 10 unexcused absences cannot be reelected.
Meanwhile, Republicans showed signs they are settling in for a longer standoff. The Senate GOP started a new political action committee last week, Oregon’s 13 Constitutional Defense Fund, to fundraise off the walkout. The committee was formed May 10, the same day as an initial round of negotiations between the two parties.
“In order to push extreme bills onto Oregonians, the majority party has been willing to trample our own laws and our Constitution,” reads a website for that effort, adding later: “Democrat leadership left us no choice.”
The 13 in the PAC’s name refers to the 12 Senate Republicans and lone Independent who’ve participated in the boycott. Bryan Iverson, a Senate Republican staffer who is running the political committee, said any money raised will be used on communications with voters and launching a legal challenge to Measure 113, the new law preventing absent lawmakers from running for reelection. The PAC has asked elections officials for a formal opinion on whether the money can be used in that legal fight.
The walkout comes as the Legislature is about to hit a key milestone of the session. On Wednesday, lawmakers will learn the specifics of a revenue forecast that they’ll use to finalize details of the next two-year budget. Passing that budget is an essential responsibility in odd-year “long” legislative sessions, but with Republicans continuing to deny Senate Democrats a 20-member quorum to conduct business, budget bills can’t pass.
Adding to the sense that Republicans might stay away, negotiations from the two parties appear to have broken down. After five formal meetings last week, members of both parties suggested Monday no additional talks had been scheduled. Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp issued a statement saying Democrats had not negotiated “in good faith.”
“I conveyed in discussions over the weekend that Senate Republicans will end their protest to pass substantially bipartisan budgets and bills that are lawful and constitutional and that will benefit all Oregonians,” Knopp said. “Democrats are instead using their slim majority to justify moving forward with an extreme, unlawful, and unconstitutional agenda.”
Republicans have said all session that they believe Measure 113 is vulnerable to a court challenge. With three senators now impacted by the law, that theory appears likely to be tested.
“Democrats were wrong to have postured that somehow Ballot Measure 113 was a game changer,” said Bonham, one of the senators who hit his 10th unexcused absence Monday. “It didn’t change the quorum requirement. If that was the move they had made, to change the quorum to [a simple majority], that would have cured this issue.”
Bonham has mostly stayed away from the Capitol since his party launched its boycott on May 3. He returned Monday, he said, to meet with Republican colleagues and to collect some belongings in case Gov. Tina Kotek sends state troopers to round up absent lawmakers. That’s a step that past governors have taken during walkouts — including then-Gov. Kate Brown in 2019. Kotek said earlier this month she had ruled out using the state police.
Bonham’s key reason for walking away from Salem is to protest House Bill 2002, a proposal that would expand protections for abortion and gender-affirming care in the state, he said Monday. Bonham and other members of his party believe the bill will do harm by potentially cutting parents out of children’s decisions to receive those services.
Others have argued that Democrats are subverting the legal process by refusing to follow a law that requires bill summaries be written at an eighth-grade reading level.
“I do believe that [voters] meant what they said when they said, ‘Stay and do your job,’” Bonham said, referring to Measure 113. “It does create a conflict with me.”
When and how the standoff might now end is unclear. Bonham says he anticipates Democrats will begin dangling budgetary goodies for some Republicans’ districts in an attempt to win enough members back to the chamber to conduct business.
Meanwhile, Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, speaking on the Senate floor Monday, likened the situation to 2020, when a Republican walkout derailed the short session.
“It just appears,” he said, “that we are back here again.”