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Oregon Senate cancels weekend floor sessions as negotiations to end the walkout continue

For the ninth day in a row, just two Republicans attended a floor session of the Oregon Senate on May 11, 2023. It marked the ninth day of a boycott by the GOP.
Dirk VanderHart
For the ninth day in a row, just two Republicans attended a floor session of the Oregon Senate on May 11, 2023. It marked the ninth day of a boycott by the GOP.

By canceling floor sessions that were scheduled this weekend, Senate President Rob Wagner is ensuring no Republicans will hit a point-of-no-return built into Oregon law.

Oregon Senate leaders have delayed what could be a critical turning point in the ongoing walkout by Senate Republicans.

Four lawmakers are just a single unexcused absence away from being unable to run for reelection, under a new rule passed by voters last year. Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, say they’ve agreed to cancel floor sessions on Friday and over the weekend,

That means that the legislators nearing the 10-absence mark — Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles; Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Falls Creek; Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Beatty; and Sen. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas — will not hit that point-of-no-return until at least Monday.

Republicans left the Capitol on May 3, as a bill expanding protections on abortion and gender-affirming care neared a final vote in the Senate. The question ever since has been how many lawmakers might be willing to stay out long enough to halt their legislative careers — a penalty that was not on the books the last time Republicans walked out in 2020.

“Following Wednesday’s leadership meeting, at my request, President Wagner agreed not to hold floor sessions this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” Knopp said in a statement Thursday morning, sent just before Wagner made that decision official by adjourning the Senate until Monday. “It is my hope that this will give us time to work out a legitimate agreement that will benefit all Oregonians. I have communicated that I will be available over the weekend to have these critical discussions.”

After weeks of silence between the two, Wagner and Knopp have now met two days in a row. Details of those sit-downs have been closely guarded by the lawmakers and their staffs, and it’s not clear whether the two sides are making progress toward ending the boycott, now in its ninth day.

Wagner’s office declined to comment on a meeting Knopp said occurred Thursday morning, saying it would release a statement.

Since beginning their boycott May 3, Republicans have offered an array of reasons for their absence.

Some point to specific Democratic bills they say are extreme — most pressingly House Bill 2002, which would expand protections for abortion and gender-affirming care in the state. Legislation expanding rent control and gun regulations have also been the focus of GOP ire. Knopp told the Oregon Capital Chronicle over the weekend his party objected to around 20 bills.

Other Republicans insist their protest is based on Democrats’ refusal to follow a 1979 law that requires summaries attached to every bill be written at roughly an eighth-grade reading level. Democrats say that rule has not been followed for decades and that they have opinions from legislative attorneys that they are on solid legal ground.

The varying reasons suggest that concessions Republicans demand in order to return could be more wide-ranging than in past walkouts. In 2019 and 2020, the party walked away principally over bills mandating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Some GOP lawmakers also say they don’t feel forced to come back to Salem just because they might not be able to run for reelection.

In the wake of recent Republican walkouts, labor unions landed a measure on the ballot last year that inserted language into the Oregon Constitution that says lawmakers who accrue 10 unexcused absences cannot run for election in either chamber immediately following their current term.

Voters approved the measure overwhelmingly, but Republicans believe it could be ripe for a court challenge. By delaying floor sessions over the weekend, Wagner has avoided tipping the Senate standoff into a more serious phase.

Democrats have been adamant in past walkouts that truant Republicans should be held to account. It was unclear Thursday whether the weekend delay had approval from the chamber’s entire Democratic caucus.

Asked what she thought about the matter as she left the chamber, state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, said only: “I think there are ongoing conversations.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.