(Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

SALEM — A controversial climate bill that caused a standoff between Democrats and Republicans, prompting Republicans to flee the state, could maybe have been resolved with a simple floor vote.

House Bill 2020 doesn’t have enough support among Democrats to pass, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said during Tuesday’s Senate floor session.

Tuesday was the sixth day Senate Republicans have been absent from the state Capitol over a controversial proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions. 

Democratic Senators trickled into the chamber just after 10 a.m., several wearing floral and bright shirts rather than the typical suit-and-tie attire. 

However, the casual atmosphere was lampooned when Courtney stood before his caucus and announced publicly that Democrats do not have the votes to pass House Bill 2020, even if a quorum were present. 

“House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate Floor,” Courtney said. “That will not change.”

“There’s been incredible work going into that bill,” Courtney continued. “I myself was even part of a joint committee, and I’m no expert on it, I just know mother nature is hurting. The individuals involved have all been incredible public servants in the past, the present.”

Courtney didn’t say he would kill the bill.

But he went on to catalogue the numerous bills that have been delayed while Republicans are out of the Capitol and the Senate can’t vote on legislation. There are 18 Democrats, meaning they need at least two Republicans there to get the 20 members they are required to have to conduct business and take votes.

“This list of bills is as dramatic a list of bills as I’ve ever seen in terms of dealing with those of our society that need help,” Courtney said, “Dealing with public safety, dealing with education, dealing with every facet of our lives. Family. Preschool promise. Children and youth with special needs.”

Looking down at Courtney was a gallery full of supporters of cap and trade, mostly teens, that had traveled to the Capitol to show their support. 

As it became clear Courtney was telegraphing a message to Senate Republicans, whom he wants to return to the Capitol, a man stood and directed the crowd to stand and turn their backs on the Senate President, showing their disdain for his words. 

Brad Reed, spokesman for Renew Oregon, the chief advocacy group pushing cap and trade, said Courtney's words came as a shock. Sixteen senators had given the group confirmation they would vote for it, he said.

"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. Make them vote and answer to their voters and Oregon's children," Reed said in a statement after the speech. "This is the biggest failure of public leadership in Oregon in recent memory."

Within minutes, Courtney finished his speech and senators frantically vacated the chamber and ran to caucus, refusing to speak with reporters. 

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, known to be on the fence about HB 2020, told a reporter no deal is in place with Republicans, but that Courtney wanted to broadcast that the votes aren’t even in place. 

Outside the chambers, a gaggle of lobbyists who watched the session on television quickly began talking about the development, as the saga has consumed the attention of the entire state political scene.

They appeared surprised, as did Senate Democrats, who had not been briefed on Courtney's speech. Immediately after caucus, senators Micheal Dembrow, D-Portland; Shemia Fagan, D-Portland; James Manning, D-Eugene; Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis; Jeff Golden, D-Ashland; Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene; Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie; and Rob Wagner, D-Tualatin, walked out into the rally in front of the Capitol. Dembrow, usually one of the most reserved lawmakers, spoke with fury.

There are 18 Democrat senators, and the bill needs 16 votes to pass. Democrats Sen. Betsy Johnson, of Scappoose and Sen. Arnie Roblan, of Coos Bay, have said they are against the bill.

Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario did not immediately return calls seeking comment. and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said the bill isn't dead, and they need clarification before making a decision. He said Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, is reaching out to Courtney for clarification.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: aubrey@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1251. Reporter Claire Withycombe: cwithycombe@eomediagroup.com or 971-304-4148. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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