Senate GOP-led walkout gridlock deepens as 3 senators hit 10 unexcused absences

The state Senate impasse deepened on Monday with no Republicans showing up and three senators who’ve participated in the GOP-led walkout now banned from serving new terms.

With the walkout hitting the 10th day, two Republicans – Sens. Daniel Bonham of The Dalles and Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls – and Independent Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas reached 10 unexcused absences, the threshold that prevents them from taking office after the next election. The development gives Senate President Rob Wager, D-Lake Oswego, less leverage to work out a deal with Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend. 

The Senate needed four senators besides the 16 Democrats present on Monday to reach a two-thirds quorum of 20 to conduct business. 

Not a single Republican senator was present, all except one unexcused, and they indicated to the Capital Chronicle they intend to continue the boycott. That sentiment follows a three-day weekend that Wagner called for negotiations to try and end the standoff. But those failed, even after Knopp and Wagner met at least five times between Wednesday and Saturday.

On Wednesday, the state will release its revenue forecast, which will determine the shape of the next two-year budget, one of the most important decisions of the session before it ends June 25. 

With the Senate unable to meet, the Legislature  cannot pass budget bills or other legislation that impacts thousands of Oregonians who need mental health treatment, defense lawyers and housing assistance.

With that work at a standstill, Wagner could do little as he looked across the Senate chamber with nearly half its seats empty. 

Instead of running a meeting with votes on bills, Wagner reflected on past walkouts that have dominated the Legislature and brought work to a standstill. The 2020 short session ended March 5 with few bills passed. 

At the time, then-Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney predicted that a constitutional amendment would be necessary to prevent walkouts.

That happened in 2022, when Oregon voters supported a constitutional amendment that disqualifies legislators from another term of office if they have 10 or more unexcused absences.

“For those who want to come back and participate in our democracy, we welcome you back wholeheartedly to continue our work together,” Wagner said. “The people of Oregon are counting on us.”

He was unavailable to answer questions afterwards.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, said in a statement she’s saddened by the situation.

“These senators should be here doing their jobs and standing up for their constituents instead of violating the Constitution,” Lieber said. “Democrats are here. We are doing our jobs, and we are confident that we can still deliver on the people’s priorities.”

Earlier in the day, dozens of supporters of the boycott gathered on the Capitol steps and lined the street to voice their opposition to House Bill 2002, an abortion and gender-affirming health care bill that Republicans oppose. 

They held anti-abortion signs that called for the protection of children and criticized Democrats. At the urging of one speaker, Pastor Lew Wooten of The River Church in Salem, they sang about Jesus and bowed their heads in prayer.

 Supporters of Republican senators rally at the Oregon Capitol on Monday, May 15, 2023, and voice opposition to House Bill 2002, an abortion and gender-affirming health care bill. The GOP-led walkout prevented the Senate from conducting business for a 10th day. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capitol Chronicle)

‘Extreme, unlawful’ agenda 

Republican senators appear to be more determined than ever to continue the boycott. 

“I conveyed in discussions over the weekend that Senate Republicans will end their protest to pass substantially bipartisan budgets and bills that are lawful and constitutional and that will benefit all Oregonians,” Knopp said in a statement. “Democrats are instead using their slim majority to justify moving forward with an extreme, unlawful, and unconstitutional agenda.”

The GOP senators have said the Senate is not following a state law that requires bill summaries be readable and written at an eighth-grade reading level so the public can understand them. Republicans also are strongly opposed to proposals that include House Bill 2005, which would ban untraceable guns, raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase assault rifles and allow local agencies to ban firearms on government-owned property, and to House Bill 2002.

Republicans are opposed to House Bill 2002 in part because it allows minors of any age to obtain an abortion without parental notification. Currently, the law allows that for girls 15 and older. 

“If Democrats thought we would facilitate an agenda that intentionally removes the rights of parents, they were seriously mistaken. Democrats have gone too far,” Bonham, the deputy minority leader said in a statement. 

Bonham told the Capital Chronicle he has no regrets about his decision to reach the 10-absence threshold.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “For me personally, if that bill’s on the table, I want nothing to do with providing any part of facilitating the process that leads to that becoming law.”

Boquist, another senator with 10 unexcused absences, blasted Democrats in an interview with the Capital Chronicle.

“Despite making speeches and talking to the press about being at the table, every discussion that’s been had since the beginning of the session has been: ‘Well, it’s our way or the highway and we’re not interested in anything else,’” Boquist said.

‘Hostile work environment’

Another Republican senator, Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek asked to be excused on Monday because of the “hostile work environment” in the Legislature. He also said he was discriminated against when Wagner would not approve previous requests to be absent for his religious observance and for family medical leave.

“The Senate president has refused to respect my religious freedoms,” Hayden wrote in Monday’s request, which was obtained by the Capital Chronicle.

Wagner denied the request. Hayden has filed a complaint against Wagner that is pending in the Senate. 

Wagner’s spokesman declined to comment on the case.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.