For the past month, the Oregon Senate has kicked off its day-to-day proceedings by sending a search team.
Unable to convene a quorum to vote on any legislation, the Senate Speaker orders the gun sergeant to track down the day’s missing senators, largely Republicans who are now into their fifth week of boycott. The sergeant climbs the stairs of the Capitol, knocks on closed doors, interrogates members of staff who timidly state that their bosses are not present. When he returns empty handed, the Senate adjourns, leaving hundreds of bills intact, filed in a growing pile of blue and yellow folders.
« I’m sad to be on the front lines watching democracy crumble, » said Kate Lieber, Senate Democratic Majority Leader, after another unsuccessful day trying to keep Oregon’s government going.
Oregon has long had a marked political divide, reflecting natural divisions between its rural farm and lumber counties and its liberal cities like Portland and Eugene. But historically the state has prided itself on the way its politicians usually seemed to find ground for collaboration.
That political spirit, often referred to as the « Oregon Way, » got a Republican governor like Tom McCall to work in the 1960s and 1970s, brokering pioneering environmental and land-use deals with Democratic lawmakers.
Even as late as 2009, Oregon had a Democratic US Senator, Ron Wyden, and a Republican, Gordon Smith, who worked so closely together that they were sometimes referred to as an odd couple from Washington. Now both US Senators are Democrats, as are all elected officials statewide, and there is a Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature. A Republican hasn’t won the governor race in 40 years.
The Republican boycott that has locked down the Senate since May 3 — one in a string of boycotts since 2019 — signals the degree to which bipartisanship has taken a back seat to strategic dysfunction.
The standoff comes amid a particularly tumultuous year in state capitals across the country, with tensions fueled by a surge in abortion laws — moved in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. issues, gun control and voting rights.
The Nebraska Legislature didn’t pass a single bill in the first two-thirds of its 90-day session after a progressive lawmaker launched a series of filibustering of all bills — including some she supported — to protest Republican efforts to pass a ban on gender- affirming care for minors.
This was also an issue in Montana, where Republicans barred a transgender lawmaker from the House floor after she vocally opposed a similar bill.
In April, Republicans in Tennessee expelled two Democratic lawmakers who had joined protests demanding gun control following a mass shooting in Nashville. The lawmakers were reinstated after a national uproar.
And in Texas, the acrimony between the moderate and conservative factions of the Republican Party showed itself in the May 26 bipartisan vote to impeach the conservative attorney general, Ken Paxton, with conservative members staunchly backing Paxton.
The discord shows no signs of abating, as red and blue states race in opposite directions on social issues and attitudes to battle each other’s policies across state lines. While Idaho lawmakers moved to make it illegal to take minors out of state to have an abortion without parental consent, Oregon moved to increase access to such care for patients from out of state.
Republicans in the Oregon capital have vowed to derail nearly all legislation unless Democrats agree to a new direction, though they haven’t outlined exactly what that direction might be. They targeted abortion legislation and transgender issues, but they also targeted drug policy and gun laws. Ten senators continued their strike despite a new voter-approved law that prevents lawmakers with 10 or more absences from being re-elected, and Democrats are now seeking to impose fines on lawmakers for every day they miss. So far neither threat has worked.
« Senate Republicans are not going to be bullied, » said House Minority Leader Sen. Tim Knopp.
The collapse comes as the state faces crises on multiple fronts. Overdose deaths have nearly doubled in recent years. The fires made devastating inroads across the Cascades. The drought has taken a toll on water systems. Portland has had a record number of homicides. Mass homelessness has spread throughout the state.
Legislation that could address some of these issues has sat idle as lawmakers engaged in an uphill battle over a bill that would change state law to increase access to abortion services, protect abortion providers from liability, and expand Medicaid coverage for transgender medical care.
Senator Daniel Bonham, a Republican, said he was particularly concerned that the measure would allow minors to get abortions without parental consent and said teens as young as 15 could seek gender-affirming care on their own.
« Taking this position was a moral obligation for me, » said Bonham. He said that when he left the Senate chamber, he purposely left a Bible on his desk there, open to a passage where Jesus says that anyone who trips a child should perhaps be drowned with a millstone around his neck. .
That such a crippling division has stalled the Senate is a baffling twist to those who have long observed Oregon politics. Past bipartisan cooperation produced groundbreaking legislation declaring that Oregon’s beaches belonged to the people, not private developers, as well as the nation’s first bottle bill that sought to eliminate a growing litter problem by giving people a cent for the return of empties.
Priscilla Southwell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Oregon, said the culture of seeking common ground has extended from the state’s congressional delegation to communities and family dinner tables.
The changing political winds have been going on for years. There were battles over the logging industry in the 1980s and over taxes in the 1990s. In more recent years, the steady increase in Democrats has encouraged them to pursue more progressive agendas, even as Republicans have begun digging in and preparing for conflict.
« That ‘Oregon Way’ has really nearly disappeared from the scene, » Ms. Southwell said. « The current situation is simply poisonous. »
While both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in brief legislative boycotts over the decades, Republicans have amped up the tactic; the latest boycott lasted weeks longer than all previous ones. Some conservatives have started a movement, with ballot measures passed in a number of counties, to explore secession from Oregon and joining Idaho altogether.
All but two Republican senators now face the prospect of being ousted from the chamber at the end of their terms under the new law, though some party leaders have suggested planning a legal challenge to the rule.
The boycotting Republicans, along with a former Republican now independent, continued to attend committee meetings, but made it clear that, barring Democratic concessions, they would return to the Senate floor only after the session is over to pass what they see as critical bills on the homelessness, affordable housing and the state budget — a proposition Democrats have called unworkable.
Sen. Lynn P. Findley, one of those who boycotted, said he has seen a steady escalation in polarization as lawmakers in between are challenged by more extreme factions. She recalled her own decision two years ago to stay and vote against a Democrat-sponsored gun control bill, even as some Republicans refused to participate in the vote and came close to denying Democrats a quorum. .
The bill passed and Mr Findley was targeted by a recall effort by hardline members of his party, who argued that he should join the strike. That recall attempt failed, but it has contributed to Mr Findley’s concern that there are a dwindling number of lawmakers willing to discuss and compromise.
« We can’t all run out the door if we don’t agree with points of view, » he said. Mr. Findley said he joined this year’s boycott because of a different concern: his long-held belief that legislative material is written in a way that ordinary people cannot understand, in violation of a law that requires that it be written in simple words.
Democrats are now evaluating what tools they have to push back Republicans. After a previous Republican walkout in 2019, then-Governor, Kate Brown, tried unsuccessfully to have state police round up lawmakers and force their return. The current governor, Tina Kotek, has made no such attempt.
The latest tactic, proposed by Democratic lawmakers, is a fine of $325 a day on absentees, equivalent to their daily wages. It is unclear whether this is a stick powerful enough to produce results.
« Losing your legislative career felt like quite a big deal, » Ms. Lieber said. “That was a stick that didn’t work. So I don’t know if we have a bigger stick to force them.