Oregon GOP senators return after 9-day walkout

Assured climate bill is 'dead,' busy weekend ahead

(Update: Oregon Senate back in session)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Republican lawmakers returned to the Oregon Senate on Saturday, ending a walkout that began on June 20 over a carbon emissions bill they said would harm their rural constituents.

The minority Republicans returned after Senate President Peter Courtney said the majority Democrats lacked the votes to pass the controversial legislation. The House had previously passed the bill, one of the centerpieces of Oregon's 2019 legislative session, which is scheduled to end on Sunday.

The departure of the 11 Republicans had prevented the Senate from reaching a quorum to vote on the bill that was aimed at countering climate change. They left the state after Gov. Kate Brown ordered the state police to bring them to the state capitol. Meanwhile, more than 100 bills have stacked up in the Senate.

To watch the Oregon Senate livestream, click here.

The 11 Republicans fled the state for nine days to deny Democrats the numbers needed to vote on a proposal that would be the second in the nation to cap and trade pollution credits among companies.

The legislation exposed lingering tensions between liberal cities like Portland that want to combat climate change and rural areas where people fear further erosion to industries like farming, logging and trucking.

Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. told reporters that Republicans will return Saturday to vote on dozens of budget and policy bills before the legislative session ends at midnight Sunday. The Democratic governor had sent state police to try to round up Republicans, who also face $500-a-day fines.

"Our mission in walking out was to kill cap and trade," Baertschiger said. "And that's what we did."

As the political crisis dragged on, Democrats said they didn't have enough votes even within their own caucus to pass the proposal targeting climate-changing emissions.

Baertschiger said he received assurances from the Democratic Senate president and Gov. Kate Brown that the climate bill won't move forward this session.

"When the views of the minority are not respected, this country has a lot of history of pushing back, and I think that's exactly what we've seen here," Baertschiger said.

Republicans were able to exert their force in a state where Democrats have supermajorities in the House and Senate and hold the governorship. It was the second time this year GOP lawmakers have used a walkout to slow legislation they opposed.

They walked out of the Senate last month to block a school funding tax package. The standoff lasted four days until the governor struck a deal to table legislation on gun control and vaccine requirements.

"This is not how our democracy is supposed to work," said Tara Hurst, executive director of the lobbying group Renew Oregon, which helped craft the climate proposal. "Continuing to capitulate to demands of a small minority, which has taken our Legislature hostage, will only lead to more of the same because there are no consequences."

Democrats had said the climate legislation was critical to make Oregon a leader in the fight against climate change and will ultimately create jobs and transform the economy. They made dozens of concessions to respond to concerns from conservatives and industry leaders, but they didn't go as far as Republicans hoped.

The walkout spiraled out of control after the Senate president ordered the Capitol closed last weekend because of what authorities termed a "possible militia threat" from far-right groups during a protest.

One of those groups, the Oregon Three Percenters, joined an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 and offered safe passage to senators on the run.

But the threat never materialized. Baertschiger didn't explicitly speak out against it but said he "condemns any type of violence."

He did not denounce the comments of Republican Sen. Brian Boquist, who was heavily criticized after warning police that they should "come heavily armed" when they tried to bring him back to the Capitol.

Baertschiger said he's confident the Senate can work through dozens of measures before the legislative session ends. Democrats still want to push through huge priorities, including what would be the nation's most generous paid family leave program and money to expand affordable housing.

Democrats have an 18 to 12 majority in the Senate, but need at least 20 members — and therefore at least two Republicans — to vote on legislation.

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who chairs the committee in charge of funding decisions, told reporters that she trusted Baertschiger when he said the walkout was only over the climate bill.

It aimed to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases by 2050 by capping carbon emissions and requiring businesses to buy or trade for an ever-dwindling pool of pollution "allowances." California has a similar program.

She said she felt "relief" that Republicans agreed to return to get through the rest of the legislative agenda, including added funding for critical services like child welfare and public safety.

Steiner Hayward said Democrats "want to continue to work on" addressing climate change and that the plan will likely come up again in the future.

"Nobody's giving up," she said.


More from Baertschiger's news conference:

"Last week, when House Bill 2020 had it's second (of three) readings, we knew we had a big problem," Baertschiger said. "We have worked all session very hard, esp. senator (Cliff) Bentz, trying to craft a carbon reduction bill for Oregon that does not dramatically or adversely affect us or our economy.

"We tried to craft amendments to make it a little more palatable for rural Oregon. That evening the governor's staff called off the talks and said we were done. At that point, the caucus made a hard decision to leave the building and denying a quorum."

"Denying a quorum is something that should never be used until we get to a point we no longer talk. It's tough. I told the caucus several times I did not want to leave the Capitol. However, the caucus voted and we left. We left the state. We dispersed in different directions. we were not together."

"Over the next few days, i had nothing but threats from the majority leader, governor and speaker. I had no threats from the Senate President (Peter Courtney).

"Yes, the Senate president was upset that we left, reminded me we had an agreement from the last time we walked (earlier in the session). I reminded him part of that agreement was cap and trade would have a reset and Sen. Bentz would have a place at the table."

"I was disappointed by the barrage of threats of state police, fines, and the possible removal of capital construction projects from our districts. It saddens me that that's how some people govern in this state."

"This week, the governor called me said we need to resolve this. I came back to Salem (late Wednesday afternoon). The Senate president said (House Bill 2020) would be dead, the governor said it would be dead, Senate Democrats voting no. The bill is dead. So here we are.

"We had a rally yesterday that was unprecedented in Oregon. They came from hundreds of miles. Yes, they brought their trucks, their tractors.

"We kept telling (the Democrats) this legislation was going to devastate rural Oregon. They didn't believe us, but after yesterday they may believe us now."

Baertschiger said Republicans also are for a responsible carbon-reduction policy, "but we've got to get it right," unlike other places around the world that "got it wrong and had to repeal it.

"We have a fragile economy in Oregon. We're a small state, 4.1 million people. We have to protect our economy. I believe, our caucus believes we can have a carbon reduction policy without totally destroying our economic machine in Oregon. We hope in the future we can work on that."

"I anticipate senate republicans will be on the floor tomorrow at 9 a.m. We have a constitutional duty to pass all the budget bills. I hope the Senate president brings those forth first, so we can get that done. There's no reason we have to have a special session. If we have a special session, it's because leadership chose to have a special session.

"After the budget bills, we have some policy bills left. Some of those are good -- I would say most of them are good bills, to be honest with you. There's a handful of bills we're having a conversation about, but i think a lot of those need an up or down vote.

"I'm confident we can pass the budget, work those policy bills and be out of here by midnight Sunday (the constitutional deadline). My caucus has told me they are dedicated to working through that agenda and having those conversations."

"Our mission of walking out of this building was to kill cap and trade. That is what our constituents said yesterday, and that's what we did. I'm proud of this caucus, even though it's probably the hardest thing we've ever had to do in our lives. I hope we never have to do that again. It's tough, I tell ya."

In answers to a reporter's question, Baertschiger explained why GOP senators won't agree to a blanket suspension of rules to get the needed work done fast.

"I'm assured cap and trade is dead," he said. "However, if someone tried to pull it back to the floor, if we gave blanket rules suspension, we would have to have a vote. That is my insurance policy that cap and trade is dead."

Baertschiger also said some senators were still traveling: "I'm not sure all are going to make Saturday, i believe you will see most of us there Saturday. I'm amazed how far some went.

Asked about the $500-a-day fine imposed on absent lawmakers, he said, "We're having talks about that, but as of right now we're still being fined $500 a day."

As for the Oregon State Police being called in to find and return senators, Baertschiger said he was told by OSP that the governor had activated them and asked him "if any are willing to come back. I told state police most of us were out of the state, and left it at that.' He said Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday "deactivated them permanently" in that regard.

Asked more about the denial of quorum, Baertschiger said, "Our founders put that in there for cases of a supermajority. By denying a quorum, you force the two parties to come back together and start talking, or nothing goes forward."

"My fear is it could be abused very easily. Every time you don't get your way, you walk out. I think our caucus looked very carefully -- our districts said we could not survive cap and trade. We saw that yesterday."

But though he didn't support a walkout at first, the vote to do so at the end of the meeting was unanimous, he said.

Another reporter asked about reports of militias threatening to come to Salem or get involved in some fashion, Baertschiger said, "I hae no idea. The militia never contacted me, or to the best of my knowledge, any members. Yeah, we saw things in social media -- you see a lot of things in social media. Obviously, they (OSP) have information we're not privy to. I condemned any kind of violence."

Baertschiger also gave great credit to Thursday's rally participants: "We should be amazed, with how many people, no incidents -- nothing. That absolutely amazes me, to not have any problems. I take my hat off to rural Oregon for that."

The senator said Brown "has made calls to elected officials in our districts, alluding to the fact that some of these (capital) projects are in danger. That bill is in the House -- and the governor has a line-item veto."

A reporter noted that many rally participants urged the senators to stay out, that they don't trust the Democrats on cap and trade.

"I would agree that the trust in the Oregon State Capitol is probably the lowest it's ever been, and that saddens me," Baertschiger said. "Because it's going to take a long, long time to retain trust among legislators. The damage that has been done this session - I can understand why people don't want us to come back at all. But at the end of the day, we have a constitutional duty to get budgets passed and get out of the building by Sunday night."

Asked in particular about the likely fate of a tobacco tax hike bill, Baertschiger said the caucus had not met yet to discuss that or other details."

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