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GOP lawmakers in Oregon continue walkouts, despite Democrats's attempts to end them

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Republican lawmakers in Oregon have started a trend in recent years. When they don't like what Democrats, who have majorities in the House and Senate there, are proposing, they don't show up. The strategy has been so potent, Oregon voters passed a law last year trying to end statehouse walkouts. Now there's a new complication. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Dirk VanderHart has this report.

DIRK VANDERHART, BYLINE: Oregon's state senate had a routine day planned in early May. There was a bill on municipal water rights to vote on, another on adjusting environmental fees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB WAGNER: The clerk will please call the roll.

VANDERHART: But as the Senate president, Rob Wagner, gaveled the chamber into session, it became clear something was off. Only a handful of Republicans were at their desks, meaning just 18 of the Senate's 30 members were in attendance. That's a problem in Oregon, where two-thirds of lawmakers must be present for the Senate or House to operate. So Democrats locked down the chamber.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAGNER: The doorkeepers will bar the doors, and the sergeant-at-arms will attend. And the clerk...

VANDERHART: They sent staff off to look for missing Republicans, and eventually it became clear GOP senators had left the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAGNER: Unexcused members cannot be located. Therefore, there is no quorum for the Senate to conduct business.

VANDERHART: There was a time in Oregon where scenes like this amounted to high drama - not anymore. Republican lawmakers here have been stuck in the minority for more than a decade. In the last four years, they've started a new tactic - walking out to block bills they disagree with. In 2019, they were upset about proposals to restrict guns and hike business taxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER COURTNEY: The doorkeepers will please bar the doors, and the sergeant-at-arms...

VANDERHART: The following year, it was a bill to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TINA KOTEK: The doorkeepers will bar the doors. The sergeant-at-arms will attend...

VANDERHART: This year, Oregon Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, were angry about a lot. Democrats were pushing to expand abortion and transgender protections along with new gun control rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM KNOPP: They just want to do what they want to do because they have the votes. And we're saying that's the tyranny of the majority, and it will not stand.

VANDERHART: So they walked. It was a familiar strategy, one Democrats had used decades ago when they were in the minority. But this time, the walkout was surprising because Oregon voters thought they'd ended walkouts for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Measure 113 - voters overwhelmingly approved it. Look at that lopsided vote there.

VANDERHART: That's a local NBC anchor on election night 2022. She's talking about a ballot measure sponsored by Democrats that created harsh new penalties for lawmakers who refused to attend floor sessions. It ensured any politician marked unexcused 10 or more times can't seek reelection. The measure passed easily, but this year's no-shows made clear it wasn't having the intended impact. As the walkout neared the one-month mark, left-leaning voters railed against Republicans during a hearing at the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll be diggity (ph) damned if Oregon voters didn't already decide definitively that legislators were going to face accountability for these cowardly walkouts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Do your job. Be adults in the room. Put on your big boy pants.

VANDERHART: The walkout finally ended in mid-June after Democrats agreed to scale back some of their priorities. At 42 days, it was the longest walkout in state history, with 10 senators, a full third of Oregon's Senate, deemed ineligible to seek reelection. But Knopp, the Republican who led the walkout, had a plan, one that might ensure he and other Republicans can keep their seats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KNOPP: We knew what the potential consequence was. We were obviously going to have legal action to follow.

VANDERHART: Republicans are now arguing in court that the ballot measure Democratic leaders pushed to end walkouts contained a fatal flaw. The convoluted legalese of the measure could open the door for senators to win another term before any penalties kick in. John DiLorenzo is an attorney representing Republican senators. He says the loophole went unnoticed when voters passed the measure but must be honored.

JOHN DILORENZO: If the voters enacted something that differs from what they intended, the remedy is pretty clear. Do it right. Do it over again.

VANDERHART: State elections officials disagree and say Republicans who walked are blocked from seeking reelection. The fight could come before the Oregon Supreme Court in coming weeks. Depending on how the court rules, lawmakers might be free to launch walkouts for years to come. No matter who wins in court, more changes are afoot. Some Democratic legislators are already talking about putting a new measure before voters next year, one that they say will finally make scenes like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAGNER: The sergeant-at-arms has reported that unexcused members cannot be located.

VANDERHART: ...A thing of the past.

For NPR News, I'm Dirk VanderHart in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dirk VanderHart
[Copyright 2024 Jefferson Public Radio]