School kids gather in the rotunda of the Capitol on Monday, March 2. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)
SALEM — School kids still visited, their eyes drifting up toward the larger-than-life murals of settlers and farmers.
A smattering of lobbyists could be seen chatting in the hallways, weaving in and out of legislative offices, on the phone, and quietly working away on laptops.
Were it any other legislative session, where there is less than a week left before lawmakers must adjourn, the building would be frantic with lobbyists trading gossip and waiting outside the chamber doors for quick audiences with state senators and representatives in between votes.
By Monday afternoon, though, the Capitol rotunda had all the echoey silence of a cathedral - without the atmosphere of reverence.
Most Republican legislators vacated the Legislature days ago to avoid voting on a bill that aims to slash the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In their wake, they have left behind a humdrum Capitol, whose occupants are bleakly inching toward the March 8 constitutional deadline.
“Those who have religion are praying,” quipped Aaron Fiedler, spokesman for the House Democrats. “Those who don’t might find it.”
Democrats have been adamant that they made changes to the now years-old climate concept to accommodate business interests and rural consumers. They point to how they have delayed the implementation of fuel regulations and scaled back the number of industrial polluters directly affected by the program.
Republicans maintain they want the legislation to go directly to voters. House Republicans decry, from afar, recent efforts by majority Democrats to compel them to testify about their absence later this week.
In a feeble attempt to bring the focus back to policymaking, four House Democrats on a health committee met late Monday afternoon to get experts on the record to testify to the damaging health effects of climate change.
It was lightly attended, and one of just two public hearings lawmakers held Monday. The dozen or so people there were a far cry from weeks earlier, when hearings of interest could draw a packed house and lines out the door.
When a reporter stopped by the office of Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, Courtney was the one asking the questions.
Why, gesturing to himself, wasn’t anybody writing a story about “this old broken down geezer” showing up for work?
Courtney, 76, grabbed a handful of pretzels and eased himself down into a chair. Oregon’s longest-serving Senate president is nursing a hip injury. He requires a walker to get around. Finishing his pretzels, he dismissed the crumbs with aplomb.
“Well, gotta call Herman again,” Courtney said.
He acted out a brief conversation between himself and Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr.
“You gonna be here tomorrow?"
Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, had just issued a joint statement to dispel any notions Republicans could get away with coming back on the last day of the session, when time is short and Republicans could have more sway over what survives, with a list of requests in hand.
“We will not be part of closed-door negotiations or last-minute deals,” Kotek and Courtney said. “We will not pick and choose which bills will live and which bills will die.”
“The only job required of a legislator as specified by the Oregon Constitution, and thus captured by our oath of office, is to vote on legislation,” they continued. “Once again, we urge the absent Republicans to return to the Capitol and make their voices heard by voting, rather than continuing this government shutdown.”
Monday afternoon, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, responded from an undisclosed location with another call to refer the bill to voters.
“Oregonians should be disappointed that Democrats have apparently thrown in the towel and refuse to participate in good faith conversations moving forward,” Drazan said. “We are not asking for secret negotiations or last-minute deals.”
Apart from the war of words, it was still “Marty Monday,” a weekly event where state Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, and his staff serve grilled cheese sandwiches.
It’s a moment for legislative staff to set aside politics and mingle on Monday mornings. A plate of the sandwiches — featuring a special blend of cheeses intended to be economical but not stingy — sat, growing cold, outside his office around midday.
“I mean, for all that we can, and do, fight about important issues of policy, we try to maintain good relationships in the building,” Wilde said. “And of course, for the staff who work here every day, it's important to keep a positive environment.”
“I think everyone's concerned,” Wilde said. “I think on both sides there's a lot of concern about what this means for our process. We do not want Salem to become a miniature version of Washington, D.C. It seems like a step down that path. We don't want the dysfunction there to become the dysfunction here.”
While most Republican lawmakers are out of the building, their aides are at work, sorting through hundreds of constituent emails. The more social media-savvy Republicans have posted photos of themselves watching committee hearings, appearing to be diligently taking notes.
The state conference call on the rising threat of the coronavirus could be heard echoing around the third floor of the House on Monday.
On the House floor, Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, wearing a bow tie and with a Dr. Seuss hat resting on her desk, rose to recite a poem she’d written on her commute down to Salem in honor of “Read Across America” day.
“Oregon, my Oregon, you deserve so much better than this,” Sollman began. “This hit to democracy feels not a win, but a huge miss. We promised Oregonians with our word and our oath, to be present, work together, for urban, rural both.”
A few minutes later, the mood turned serious from the dais, when Kotek read aloud an email she’d written to House Republicans on Saturday, Feb. 29.
“We all understand the seriousness of the situation you have created by intentionally being absent from floor sessions for the last week,” Kotek said. “Without quorum, we cannot do the work that voters have elected us to do. Once again, I ask that you return to work.”