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Oregon’s GOP senators are still missing after stopping carbon bill

Republicans stayed away from the chamber to avoid action on emissions measure

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown authorized state police to round up the missing Republicans. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown authorized state police to round up the missing Republicans. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Seemingly outnumbered on a polarizing climate change bill, Republican members of the Oregon Senate fled the state last week to deny Democrats the chance to pass it.

But even after Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney conceded there weren’t enough Democratic votes to pass the measure, the 11 Republican members of the chamber remained away from the state capital in Salem on Wednesday.

Staffers in Courtney’s office puzzled over the procedural next steps to move onto other Senate business as the clocked ticked down toward the end of the legislative session on Sunday.

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The situation was “still in a holding pattern,” Courtney spokeswoman Carol Currie said Wednesday. Staffers were working to determine how the Senate could move from the cap-and-trade measure — after it was put on the floor calendar – and onto consideration of the more than 100 other bills.

Courtney said Tuesday the bill didn’t have the votes on the Senate floor, indicating fewer than 16 of the chamber’s 19 Democrats supported it. But that announcement wasn’t enough to bring back Senate Republicans, who fled the state rather than allow a vote on the bill they fiercely opposed and remained unconvinced the procedural hurdles to moving past the bill would be quickly cleared.

Representatives for Senate Republicans didn’t return messages Wednesday. Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. on Tuesday night tweeted articles about the conflict, including one that said no deal had been reached. He also tweeted a link to a GoFundMe account raising money for the absent senators, who are being fined $500 for every day they stay away from the state Capitol.

“House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor,” Courtney said from the chamber’s dais Tuesday. “That will not change.”

Courtney went on to list unrelated bills that would die if not voted on by the Senate’s adjournment Sunday, including measures on mental health and funding for the state’s Education Department.

Because the cap-and-trade bill was read twice and on the floor calendar, senators must take some kind of action on it – either an up-or-down vote, referral to a committee or some other procedural vote.

“We need to have further conversations so that the Republicans feel comfortable with the process,” Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. said in a statement Tuesday.

Democrats hold 19 of the chamber’s 30 seats, one short of the number needed to meet the quorum requirement. They were unable to conduct any business as long as the Republicans stayed away from the chamber, as they had since Thursday. Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, authorized the state police to bring missing Republicans back to the Capitol, but they were across state lines, reportedly in Idaho, where Oregon police couldn’t reach them.

Brad Reed, spokesman for environmental group Renew Oregon, said at least 16 Democrats told the group and their constituents they were ready to vote for the bill — enough to pass without Republican support.

Reed said Democrats should have held stronger to their position, keeping the bill on the calendar and calling a special session, forcing the Republicans to either stay out of state as state funding lapsed and the government shut down in September or to return to Salem and vote.

“It’s a failure of leadership not to take this to a floor vote and have senators show who is a yes and who is a no on climate action,” he said.

GOP’s Second Walkout

Democratic supporters of the bill said Courtney’s announcement didn’t mean the end of the measure and criticized the Republican tactics. It was the second time Senate Republicans fled the state this session.

In May, Democrats agreed not to bring up votes on bills requiring vaccines and imposing new regulations on guns in return for Republicans coming back to the capital to finish the rest of the business for the session, Democratic Rep. Karin Power said. The cap-and-trade bill was raised at the time and Democrats expected Republicans to vote on it, Power said.

And before the session, Democrats ran on ambitious climate legislation in 2018 and won, she added.

“How does democracy function when the will of the voters is thwarted by simply grinding government to a halt,” she said.

In a news release that called the tactics “dangerous,” Brown challenged the Republicans to return by Wednesday afternoon to show if they’re “against climate change legislation or . . . democracy.”

Brown has indicated she may call a special session, during which lawmakers could again try to pass the bill.

Gregory Koger, a political science professor at Miami University who’s researched political obstruction, said the tactic of state legislators leaving the state to avoid a difficult vote is not uncommon in chambers where quorum requirements allow.

It’s not done often because the reality of living away from home, family and employment in states where legislators hold other jobs is more difficult than it may seem, said Matt Green, a Catholic University professor who specializes in legislative tactics by minority parties.

“When you see this, it’s because something important is at stake,” Koger said.

In Oregon, a Democratic lead in statewide elections belied a strong rural constituency that considered the cap-and-trade bill “very damaging to their way of life,” he said.

Minority parties are not often successful when they resort to leaving the state because majorities generally have more leverage.

“[Courtney] folding surprised me because he didn’t wait very long,” Green said. “If he’d waited longer … I would’ve been surprised if that didn’t work.”

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