Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, speak about an ongoing Republican walkout on May 9, 2023. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Legislature’s Democratic and Republican leaders have scheduled a meeting to discuss the Senate impasse as the walkout enters its seventh day. 

Republican leaders have said they walked out because bill summaries are too difficult to understand and need to be written at a middle school level. Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, also told the Capital Chronicle they want 20 “hyperpartisan” bills set aside,  including proposals on abortion, guns and transgender health care. 

But Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, told reporters he will not back down on House Bill 2002, a proposal shoring up abortion rights and gender-affirming health care.

“Let me be clear: House Bill 2002 is not up for negotiation,” Wagner said. “Democrats ran on ensuring abortion rights for all Oregonians and voters gave us the majority in both chambers. We have a clear mandate to pass this bill.”

With less than two months left in the session, lawmakers have to pass bills determining how much the state spends on services, including housing assistance, on attorneys for low-income defendants and behavioral health care services for vulnerable Oregonians. Bills are moving through the House, and through committees, but they’re backing up at the Senate, and without a quorum, they can’t be passed.

Wagner said he has invited Knopp to a meeting at 8 a.m. Wednesday with Republican and Democratic leaders from the House. Knopp, who’s boycotted the Senate the past four days, will join that conversation virtually, Wagner said. 

“I will continue to have an open door,” Wagner said. “We will continue to do what we did this last week, which was send him an email and say, ‘Hey, you want to get coffee and a doughnut?’ And unfortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of movement from his side to actually want to show up.”

At a separate news briefing Tuesday, House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, told reporters he hopes to move the conversation forward. Rayfield and House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, have a good relationship and work together on some issues, he said. 

“I’m not interested in a political game of chicken,” Rayfield said. “What I am more interested in is facilitating and being a part of a conversation where we can look at how do you govern for the entire state, and make sure that we’re passing laws and priorities that are consistent with the values of the people that sent us here.”

Wagner and Knopp haven’t met for about five weeks, and Knopp has previously called their meetings earlier in the session “completely and utterly worthless.” 

Ashley Kuenzi, Knopp’s spokeswoman, confirmed Knopp will be at the meeting.

“He is hoping to have a conversation with some substance,” Kuenzi said. Oregon senators prepare for their floor session on May 9, 2023, as the Republican-led walkout entered its seventh day. The Senate failed to obtain the two-thirds quorum needed to vote on bills. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Gov. Tina Kotek has talked to Knopp and Wagner about the walkout. Kotek said she called Knopp last Thursday and listened to his concerns. She told him she understands that legislators in the minority party are frustrated, but said he needs to come back.

Kotek also spoke to Wagner on Monday, she said. Knopp and Wagner are adults and should work out their issues themselves, she said. 

“I am watching and hopefully things will improve,” Kotek said. “If not, I will get involved.”

Meanwhile, frustrations are mounting. 

“They are holding us hostage by this walkout,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton. “They’re holding hostage, every single bill and every single budget, things that Oregonians need.”

On Tuesday, the Senate had 10 unexcused absences, nine of them Republicans along with Brian Boquist, I-Dallas. Sens. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, and Chris Gorsek, D-Gresham, were excused. 

The 30-member Senate needs 20 members to conduct business.

In 2022, Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment that prevents a legislator from running for reelection if they have 10 or more unexcused absences.

Wagner denies medical, emergency requests 

After the walkout started, Wagner said he would only grant excused absences in “extraordinary circumstances” and he’s done just that, rescinding previously approved requests and denying requests for medical reasons, emergencies and religious ceremonies. Wagner said senators can be excused only for extraordinary circumstances that apply equally to all senators. He declined to discuss the reasons behind specific denials with reporters, citing potential litigation. 

Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, has filed complaints against Wagner over denials to attend church and help his wife take care of their disabled daughter. 

Records show Wagner also denied medical requests from Republican Sens. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls and Art Robinson of Cave Junction. “It is clear that the office of the Senate president is now attempting to make medical decisions for senators,” Robinson wrote on his request form. 

In response to a denial to be excused for a family emergency with his parents, Republican Sen. David Brock Smith of Port Orford criticized Wagner and spoke of his parents in a tearful speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

His father, a 78-year-old retired Navy lieutenant commander, suffers from vascular dementia, Brock Smith said. His parents have been married for 58 years and together for 65 years since they started dating as teenagers.

“My mother has called me at my home in Port Orford crying to where I’ve had to call my father to try and make sure that he is safe and that he can get to bed and then I call my mother back as she’s sobbing,” Brock Smith said.

His father doesn’t know who his mother is anymore, Brock Smith said.

“She of course is a very private person but wanted you to know how incredibly hard it is,” Brock Smith said. “I would appreciate it and I know that she would as well Mr. President, with all due respect, that you not mention anything about this after my courtesy because frankly it’s very upsetting … and frankly, your comments would be as empty as your word.”

Wagner responded anyway and thanked Brock Smith for his vulnerability. 

“Your parents sound like absolutely amazing people and I’m sure they are so proud of the work that you have done,” Wagner said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.

Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Julia Shumway 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.

Leave a comment