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Oregon Republican walkout: 6 more senators are potentially ineligible for reelection

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938.

A total of 10 senators have now accrued 10 unexcused absences, meaning they cannot hold office next term.

The ongoing walkout by Senate Republicans hit a meaningful milestone Thursday, as the bulk of the chamber’s GOP members opted to remain absent and potentially forfeit their ability to run again.

Six Republicans — Sens. Tim Knopp, Lynn Findley, Bill Hansell, Kim Thatcher, Art Robinson and Suzanne Weber — did not attend a scheduled floor session, each notching their 10th unexcused absence of the session. That’s the threshold, approved overwhelmingly by voters last year with Measure 113, at which lawmakers are disqualified from serving their next term.

The six lawmakers join four others — Sens. Daniel Bonham, Cedric Hayden, Dennis Linthicum and Brian Boquist, a former Republican who is now a registered Independent — who hit the mark earlier this week.

While not surprising given Republicans’ insistence that they would not allow Democrats to pass bills on abortion, gender affirming care and gun safety that they deem extreme, the moment was significant.

Pushed by Democratic allies in public sector unions, Measure 113 was supposed to curtail walkouts Republicans have used increasingly to stymie bills. But as of now the measure is failing, and with 10 senators now past an apparent point of no return, it is unclear what leverage will bring them back to the building. Republicans have made clear they will challenge Measure 113 in court.

Three Republicans — Dick Anderson, David Brock Smith and Fred Girod — have fewer than 10 absences. Their presence would theoretically be enough to grant the chamber a 20-person quorum if all Democrats are present. But both Girod and Democratic Sen. Chris Gorsek have been absent for weeks for health reasons.

“Today is another extremely challenging day for Oregon,” Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said when it was clear Republicans were not present. “I’ve never seen a situation like this. It is unique, it is beyond disappointing, it is troubling and frankly it is saddening.”

Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, spoke tearfully about how the standoff had weighed heavily on her.

Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, one of two Republicans in attendance Thursday, rose to commend his colleagues for staying away.

“Here we are as they spend their time working still selflessly and tirelessly defending the transparency of this body, to follow the constitution of this body and the state of Oregon,” Brock Smith said. “And more importantly defending the parental rights of every Oregonian in this state.”

Brock Smith was alluding to two reasons Republicans have offered for the walkout: an insistence that Democrats are not following legal process to advance bills, and their opposition to House Bill 2002, which among its provisions would ensure that children of any age could receive an abortion without parental permission.

Negotiations between the two parties began last week and stretched over the weekend, but apparently broke down by Monday. It’s not precisely clear what Republicans have asked for in order to return to Salem, but Democrats have insisted they are not willing to jettison HB 2002 or their central gun safety bill, House Bill 2005.

“We talked about the legislative process, the state budget and ideas to improve our Democracy,” Wagner said on the floor. “But it has been made clear: This walkout is about shutting down debate on this floor and shutting down bills that the people of Oregon say they want.”

What comes next is unclear. Gov. Tina Kotek said Wednesday she has stayed largely out of discussions.

“I’m doing a lot of listening, a lot of cajoling, a lot of, ‘Hey, there’s an expectation here please get back to work,’” Kotek, a Democrat, told reporters.

Whether Kotek will intervene more fully now is not clear. The governor has said she would consider calling a special session if lawmakers cannot pass a budget by June 25, when the session is scheduled to adjourn. She has also held out the possibility she could send state troopers after truant Republicans — something she’d earlier ruled out.

“I haven’t changed my mind on that at this point,” Kotek said. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t. I’m treating people with respect. Get back to work. I don’t need to chase you down.”

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.