There was an optimistic mood in the Oregon state Capitol that a boycott by Republican senators, which has been underway for six weeks, could end soon as GOP and Democratic leaders met to negotiate compromises over bills on abortion, transgender health care and gun safety.
The walkout, which began on May 3, is the longest in the 163-year history of the Oregon Legislature and reportedly the second-longest of any U.S. state, after Rhode Island.
This year several statehouses around the nation, including Montana and Tennessee, have been ideological battlegrounds. Oregon — which pioneered decriminalizing marijuana, boosting recycling, and protecting immigrants — is often viewed as one of America’s most liberal states. But it also has deeply conservative rural areas.
The talks in Oregon aimed at ending the impasse gained momentum when Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tim Knopp, began late last week to negotiate on the contentious bills.
“I don’t want to say anything to jinx the current state of play, but I will say that at this point I’m optimistic,” Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat, told his constituents in an email.
The Republican walkout, the sixth since 2019, has prevented a quorum in the Senate, freezing debates and floor votes on over 100 bills. Oregon is one of only four states requiring two-thirds of legislators to be present for quorum instead of a majority. Four states require two-thirds of legislators to be present for quorum.
On Wednesday, more than 40 Oregon Democratic House and Senate members sponsored a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the state Constitution to require a majority of each chamber in the Legislature to be present to conduct business. If passed by the Legislature, which seems unlikely given that there’s only 11 days left in the current legislative session, it would go before Oregon voters in a ballot measure in the 2024 election.
The 2023 legislative session must end, according to the state Constitution, no later than June 25. Bills on state budgets for the next two years are also supposed to be approved by then by the Senate and House. If not, Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek would call a special session for this summer to pass a biennial budget. She has signed a resolution that would maintain funding at current levels for state agencies until September.
Oregon Republicans, in particular, oppose a provision in the measure on abortion and transgender health care that would allow doctors to provide abortions regardless of the patient’s age, with medical providers not required to notify the parents of a minor, especially when doing so could endanger the child, such as in cases of incest.
They also object to amendments in a gun-control measure that originally would punish the manufacturing or transferring of undetectable firearms with a maximum 10-year sentence and $250,000 fine, but was expanded to increase the purchasing age to 21 for AR-15s and similar types of guns, and allow for more limited concealed-carry rights.
Connor Radnovich, spokesperson for Senate President Rob Wagner, said the talks continued on Wednesday behind closed doors.
“Conversations are ongoing and it seems that both sides are hopeful that a deal can be reached,” Radnovich said.
In a conciliatory gesture, Wagner gaveled open Senate floor sessions this week but did not conduct a roll call. That keeps boycotting Republicans from being assessed fines of $325 for every day that a quorum isn’t reached. The fines had been assessed starting June 5.
After GOP lawmakers boycotted the Oregon Legislature in 2019, 2020 and 2021, voters last November approved a ballot measure by an almost 70% margin aimed at stopping walkouts. Lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences would be disqualified from reelection in the next term, according to the measure’s title and summary.
Republican senators are expected to file court challenges if the secretary of state’s elections division bars them from registering as candidates in September.
The state with the longest walkout is Rhode Island, according to a list by Ballotpedia.
In 1924, Republican senators in New Hampshire fled to Rutland, Massachusetts and stayed away for six months, ending Democratic efforts to have a popular referendum on the holding of a constitutional convention.
That self-imposed exile followed the detonation of a gas bomb in the Senate chamber. Democrats and Republicans both accused each other of setting it off.