One-third of Oregon Senate now ineligible for another term as Republican walkout continues

All but three Republicans in the Oregon state Senate have now made themselves ineligible to serve another term under a voter-approved state law intended to prevent walkouts.

Six Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, hit their 10th unexcused absence on Thursday morning. Three other Republicans and an independent senator reached that threshold earlier this week, meaning one-third of the Senate is now barred from serving another term because of a constitutional amendment voters approved last year. 

Republicans initially said the walkout stemmed from the Senate failing to comply with a state law that requires bill summaries to be written at an eighth-grade reading level, though they’ve since acknowledged that they’re also protesting Democratic bills around abortion, gender-affirming care and guns. 

On Thursday, Democrats all stood when called on for attendance and remained standing until after a somber-faced Senate sergeant at arms returned from a fruitless hunt for missing Republican senators around the building.  

“This walkout must end,” said Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego. “The people of Oregon desire it. Democracy demands it.” 

As they have on previous days, Republican senators showed up at the Capitol after Wagner conceded that they couldn’t be found. Minutes after the floor session ended, Knopp walked into his office, where stacks of “pink slips” delivered by groups who wanted the walkout to end rested on a table behind an office manager. 

Activists with a coalition of progressive groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Our Oregon, dropped off more pink slips, cake and “happy retirement” balloons at the Senate Republican office later in the morning. 

Distraught Democrats huddled in a conference room off the floor for more than an hour after giving up on voting on bills. Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, told reporters after that meeting that she was sad because she enjoyed working with Republican colleagues who will be unable to serve.

“Part of why I’m so deeply saddened is because I really truly believe in democracy, and I do feel like I’m watching with the front row seat a fracture in that democracy,” Lieber said. “No one gets everything they want in a democracy either. So when you have a minority who wants to veto the majority rule, it undermines the faith in democracy and the stability of our state.” 

Public sector unions and other Democratic groups succeeded in passing an amendment to the state constitution last year to prohibit any lawmaker with 10 unexcused absences during a session from serving in their next term. 

Republicans contend that the new law violates the state constitution, and they’re raising funds to fight it in court. As of Thursday afternoon, their Oregon’s 13 Constitutional Defense Fund had reported raising just more than $1,200. 

Six senators up in 2024

Six of the senators with 10 absences – Knopp, independent Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas and Republican Sens. Lynn Findley of Vale, Bill Hansell of Athena, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls and Art Robinson of Cave Junction – represent districts with elections in 2024.

Hansell announced his retirement earlier this year. Knopp said Thursday he needed to talk to his family and employer about running for re-election, but that he would do so if it were solely his choice. His Bend-based district voted overwhelmingly for Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020, and political analysts considered Knopp’s re-election a longshot before the walkout. 

Republican Sens. Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek, Kim Thatcher of Keizer and Suzanne Weber of Tillamook also have 10 absences, but their seats aren’t up for election until 2026. Both Thatcher and Weber represent swing districts. 

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, has been excused for weeks for medical reasons, and Sens. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, have been on the floor. Anderson and Brock Smith are both up for election in 2024: Anderson in a coastal district that narrowly voted for Biden and Brock Smith in a conservative district in southwestern Oregon. 

Wagner said he won’t consider retroactively excusing absences if Republicans and Democrats reach an agreement. As of Thursday, the two parties had no plans to resume negotiations, with Wagner saying Democrats needed a day to collectively catch their breath and decide what to do. 

Democrats will try to find at least one more Republican senator to join Anderson and Brock Smith on the floor and hope Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, returns soon from recovering from surgery, Wagner said. 

“Maybe now that they’re disqualified from running for re-election, they’ll look to their district, they’ll look to their service and say, ‘I will come to the floor and debate,’” he said. 

Knopp said he and other Republicans will return before the Legislature must adjourn on June 25, and they’ll vote to clear procedural hurdles to make it possible to pass a budget. But Wagner said he won’t allow that.

He went back and watched the speech Gov. Tina Kotek, then speaker of the House, gave in March 2020 when Republicans led by then-Minority Leader Christine Drazan, a Canby Republican who later ran against Kotek for governor, left the state for weeks to block a vote on a climate change bill. 

“Tina at the end of her floor speech said ‘You don’t get to come back with 12 hours left, Leader Drazan, and determine just the bills and the budgets that you want to vote,’” Wagner said. “That’s not what democracy is. It just isn’t, and so the same standard is going to apply here.”

‘Their job is to govern’

Lieber and Wagner said Knopp ultimately told them they needed to kill four bills: House Bill 2002Senate Joint Resolution 33 and Senate Bill 27, all of which deal with abortion and transgender health care, as well as House Bill 2005, which would increase the minimum age to buy most firearms from 18 to 21 years old, ban untraceable firearms known as “ghost guns”  and allow local government agencies to ban firearms in public buildings.

Knopp denied that he demanded the bills be killed, saying he thought they could be amended while declining to elaborate on what amendments he would propose. 

“The minority’s job is to hold the governing body accountable, and their job is to govern,” Knopp said. “I believe we’re doing our job.” 

Wagner left open the option of using other tools, including sending issuing subpoenas to compel senators to appear or asking Kotek to send Oregon State Police to bring them back to the floor, but he said he’s not yet ready to do that. 

Kotek on Wednesday said she would be willing to call lawmakers into a special session to pass a budget if the walkout persists. And she said she hadn’t completely ruled out sending state troopers out to round up errant senators if needed. 

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t,” she said. “I’m treating people with respect. Get back to work. I don’t need to chase you down. Get back to work.”

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.