UPDATE (7:14 p.m. PT) — Oregon Senate Republicans have notched a number of unlikely victories this Legislative session. None were as great as the concession they appeared to have won Tuesday morning.
Without warning his Democratic colleagues, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, took to the Senate dais, gaveled the chamber to order and solemnly announced his party’s proposal for fighting climate change was dead.
“What I’m about to say, I say of my own free will. No one has told me to say this,” Courtney said. “House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor. That will not change.”
The news — which some in the building had acknowledged for days — shot through the Capitol, causing rejoicing in some corners and derision in others.
House Speaker Tina Kotek vowed to keep pushing “strong climate legislation” this session. Gov. Kate Brown again chastised Republicans for launching a walkout that’s blocked all progress in the Senate for almost a week.
More striking than those reactions, though, is what Republicans didn’t do.
After helping to knock off one of their most hated bills of the session, they didn’t immediately agree to return.
“I still have caucus members who are worried if it’s on the floor, it’ll get called up and, boom, it’s passed,” Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, said by phone late Tuesday afternoon. “Unfortunately we’ve been told a lot of things this session that didn’t happen. The trust element is extremely low right now.”
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, echoed the sentiment.
“I think there’s a real challenge for President Courtney to be able to show that the bill, should it be called to the floor, would not pass,” Bentz told OPB’s “Think Out Loud.”
As of Tuesday evening, Republicans and Democrats had not announced any deal for the GOP to return so the full Senate can resume passing bills before the Legislature’s mandatory June 30 adjournment.
And while Baertschiger and other members of his party all cited suspicion as the key reason they didn’t immediately agree to return to Salem, there appears to be more to their calculus. As Baertschiger acknowledged, they have pushed for further concessions as well.
“There’s several sidebar conversations, but the intent of this boycott was cap and trade,” he said.
Part of Republicans’ wish list, according to Baertschiger and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, were changes to a bill impacting when the Student Success Act, a $1 billion-a-year business tax for public schools, would reach voters. The bill in question would give Oregon voters their shot in January 2020 if opponents succeed in referring the tax to the ballot. Under normal circumstances, a referendum vote would occur in November 2020, when turnout will almost certainly be higher and opponents believe they have a better chance of killing the tax.
Baertschiger declined to say what other requests Republicans have made.
“Some things are brought up, and they’re just immediately discarded,” he said.
The lack of progress increases the likelihood the Legislature will be called into a special session in July, a step Gov. Kate Brown has already vowed to take if lawmakers can’t complete a budget before they’re required to adjourn June 30.
Despite their reticence, Republicans cheered the apparent death of HB 2020, which would have capped greenhouse gas emissions in the state and charged companies for their emissions.
“We are out of time to fix this bill for the 2019 legislative session,” Knopp said. “So if there was a commitment that it won’t come up again until at least the 2020 session it’s a step in the right direction to end this political protest.”
Knopp estimated most members could be back at the Capitol within 36 hours, but he said the Republican caucus was waiting to hear key details.
“Are they still going to try to post a fine? Are they going to get retribution? Are they still going to try and kill capital construction projects?” he said, referring to the $500-a-day fine the absent Republicans are being charged for missed meetings. “All that is important to our members. … And what bills are they going to run on the rest of the calendar?”
Meanwhile, two senators who backed the climate change bill appeared livid after Courtney’s announcement and declined to speak to reporters on the floor. A group of them showed up a short time later on the Capitol steps, where they addressed a rally in support of HB 2020.
“We are looking at a couple of very difficult days ahead of us,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a key architect of the bill. “I need to know that everyone who’s here around me is committed to this struggle. Are you?”
The crowd cheered.
Courtney’s office attempted to suggest early Tuesday that there was a difference between HB 2020 not having enough votes and the bill being dead. But Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, saw little daylight between the two phrasings.
“I don’t think you can get much clearer than to say a bill does not have the votes,” Burdick said. “We need 16 votes to pass the bill through the Senate, and we do not have 16 votes.”
While Burdick said the idea would not be taken up again this year, including in the governor’s promised special session, she vowed to pursue a climate change bill in future sessions.
“Those of us who fervently support this bill, which I am one, have not given up,” Burdick said. “You will not see the end of an effort to reduce carbon emissions and join a West Coast consortium of people who are committed to reducing carbon and to save our melting planet.”
Burdick added that Democrats would stand firm on fining absent Republicans $500 per day.
“I don’t know what to call it,” she said of Republicans’ walkout, their second since May. “I want to call it terrorism, because they are not doing their job and it has fractured the entire institution.”
The cap-and-trade policy is a Democratic priority in this year’s session. But whether there was enough support in the Senate, the more moderate of the Legislature’s two Democrat-dominated chambers, has been a question since before Republicans walked out to prevent a vote.
Democrats hold 18 of the Senate’s 30 seats, and so could only afford to lose two votes to muster the 16 needed to pass the bill. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, strongly opposed the policy, and Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, had indicated he was a possible “no.”
A number of other senators, including Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, have also raised concerns, and some in the building believed even senators who previously backed the bill had wavered in support as the Senate boycott went on.
Burdick, meanwhile, told reporters that there hadn’t been support in the Senate even before Republicans walked away. “As the person who counts the votes, my personal sense is that the votes were not there,” she said.
But environmental groups that backed HB 2020 disagreed. Immediately after Courtney’s statement Tuesday morning, the group Renew Oregon put out a statement calling it “the biggest failure of public leadership in Oregon in recent memory.”
Courtney’s assertion “is in direct contradiction to what 16 Senators told their constituents to their faces in recent days,” said Tera Hurst, the group’s executive director. “Instead of having the Senate vote on the floor and stand up to the public, the Senate President is allowing members to hide behind a contradictory statement.”
Climate activists on site in the Capitol reacted nearly as strongly. As Courtney spoke on the Senate floor, HB 2020 supporters in the Senate gallery got out of their seats and turned their backs to him.
“They have the votes. They just don’t have the courage,” Shilpa Joshi, a 31-year-old climate activist, said afterward. “They are jeopardizing our future.”
House Speaker Kotek said in a tweet she was unwilling to give up hope on passing some sort of climate legislation this session.
“This has been a dark week for the integrity of the Legislature,” the tweet read. “Senate [Republicans] have been threatening our democratic institution and subverting the will of Oregon voters who know we need to act now. Their walkout has come at immense cost to our institution and potentially the planet.”
The governor said it’s time for the Republicans to come back to the Capitol.
“Are they against climate change legislation or are they against democracy?” Brown said in a statement. “If they are not back by Wednesday afternoon, we will know the answer.”
Potentially most tricky for crafting a deal for Republicans’ return is where HB 2020 sits. Having already passed the House last week, it’s scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor. Sending it back to committee, or rejecting the bill outright, would require a vote of the Senate, which Republicans’ are leery of granting.
Burdick suggested Thursday that Republicans should take Courtney at his word, and trust that the bill won’t move.
“The Republicans are the last people to talk about trust at this point,” she said. “The president told the truth. The president is a man of his word. And if they choose not to believe someone with a proven record of keeping their word, then that’s their problem, not ours.”
Baertschiger said some members of his caucus, who feel that Democrats broke a deal struck in May, aren’t convinced.
“I do believe him,” Baertschiger said. “However, he’s only one vote like me.”
The Senate is scheduled to convene again at 10 a.m. Wednesday.