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Oregon Senate Republican walkout ends with compromises

Democrats agree to water down bills on abortion and firearms, ending the Senate boycott

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 shelve 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 988, a hotline for people in mental health crises. And senators on Thursday 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.

Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said legislative leaders reached an agreement in time for the Senate to move through backlogged bills by a June 25 deadline while still taking off weekends and the Juneteenth holiday on Monday.

“We have achieved major bipartisan victories already in the session on housing and on semiconductors,” he said. “And I fully expect if you look at the legislation that is out there right now, that we are going to continue to make incredible progress on behalf of Oregon families.”

Some details of the deal were still being worked out Thursday as five Republicans joined Democratic colleagues on the Senate floor for the first time since May 3. Among them: whether Democrats would waive the $325 daily fines absent Republicans began accruing earlier this month.

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.

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 on voting on bills.

Democratic Sen. Kate Lieber of Beaverton and Republican Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend work together in the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday, June 15, 2023. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Both parties claim victory

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.

The Senate Rules Committee on Thursday approved an amendment to House Bill 2002 that 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 if 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 amendment also would delete provisions of the bill establishing grants for reproductive and abortion care at college campuses and rural areas.

Knopp told reporters that he thought Democrats gave up more than Republicans in the final deal, but both sides were unsatisfied with the agreement.

“I think the Democrat majority yielded a lot, and that really is what helped make this go,” he said. “And I know that was very painful for them.”

Wagner disagreed.

“There really isn’t anything that’s coming out of there that I’m really that disappointed with, and I think you’re gonna see that Oregonians are the ones who are winning here,” he said.

The Rules Committee also amended House Bill 2005 so it only would ban “ghost guns,” or untraceable homemade firearms. It no longer contains provisions to raise the age to buy most guns from 18 to 21 or to allow local governments to ban firearms on their property. Democrats said in a statement that the Legislature will establish a workgroup to study policy solutions for gun violence and deposit $10 million in the Community Violence Prevention Program.

Both bills are expected to receive votes on Thursday afternoon. They’ll go back to the House, which is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, to accept amendments.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, said the path forward required bipartisanship.

“We as Democrats, we showed up, we made some compromises, and this is the path we’ve chosen,” Lieber told reporters.

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.”

The Capitol building 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. Knopp, Hansell, and Findley joined them.

Questions remain

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

And most Republicans still stayed away from the Capitol on Thursday. Knopp said some had travel issues and will make their way back to the building in the coming days.

“But also some of them have some very deeply held beliefs and concerns still and are trying to work through those,” he said. “Our motto in the Republican caucus is ‘Vote your district; vote your conscience.’”

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 face either consequence. Senators have indicated court challenges to the new absence law are likely.

Most legislative Democrats now support a proposal to change quorum rules to prevent future walkouts, though Wagner said that bill will not proceed this session.

But Knopp left open the possibility that Republicans will walk out again in future sessions, as they have nearly every year since 2019.

“There have been, let’s just say high-ranking officials who have requested that we not walk out in the future, and we have not made that commitment,” Knopp said. “We want to make sure that the voices of our constituents are heard and respected and our values are respected in this process. And if that occurs, then there are not likely to be walkouts in the future.”


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