Senate Republicans Might Reprise Their Walkout Strategy in 2020

The 2019 Oregon legislative session was jolted by two Senate Republic walkouts that wound up deep-sixing three separate bills, including cap-and-trade legislation. Could another walkout occur in the 35-day 2020 legislative session? Maybe. (Photo Credit: Justin Katigbak/Willamette Week)

The 2019 Oregon legislative session was jolted by two Senate Republic walkouts that wound up deep-sixing three separate bills, including cap-and-trade legislation. Could another walkout occur in the 35-day 2020 legislative session? Maybe. (Photo Credit: Justin Katigbak/Willamette Week)

Oregonians, politicians and the news media are still buzzing about the nine-day Senate GOP walkout just before adjournment of the 2019 legislative session. The question now is whether another walkout could happen in the short 2020 legislative session that starts next February if Democrats try again to pass a cap-and-trade bill.

The 12-member Senate GOP caucus staged two walkouts in the 2019 session. The first one, in protest of the $1 billion Student Success Act, didn’t stop the bill they protested, but did sink two other major pieces of legislation dealing with gun regulations and vaccination exemptions.

The second, longer walkout was aimed at sidetracking the cap-and-trade bill. It succeeded. Senate Republicans returned to the Capitol with just enough time to pass budget bills and a few Democratic priority bills before the June 30 midnight deadline. No special session was needed.

Republican leaders rationalized their walkouts as their only way to counter the Democratic supermajority that controlled the Senate 18-12. The walkouts denied Democrats the 20-member quorum required to conduct a floor session, delaying as many as 100 Senate floor votes.

The walkouts drew national media attention, in part because of comments by Senator Brian Boquist that were construed as physical threats. While legislative Democrats and Governor Brown were fuming over the walkout, there appeared to be a fervent wave of support from rural Oregon.

Immediately after sine die of the 2019 legislative session, Brown vowed not to give up on cap-and-trade legislation, even if she had to resort to executive action. Her post-session speech may have increased the odds of a Senate Republican walkout next year. 

Oregon has seen legislative walkouts before. When she was the Senate Democratic Leader in 2001, Brown expressed support for a walkout by House Democrats to protest the way majority Republicans were addressing legislative redistricting. But previous walkouts were more like expressions of discontent than strategic parliamentary maneuvers. Senate Republicans have suddenly discovered they have power they didn’t realize they possessed. Democrats made the same discovery, but belatedly.

What happens next on cap-and-trade, as well as other Democratic priorities, may determine the likelihood of a walkout in the 2020 session. The potential of a walkout in a constitutionally limited 35-day session is its own political deterrent. During a short session, timelines are compressed and a similar nine-day walkout would cripple the Capitol and the ability to accomplish any major priority.

Political commentators tend to focus on the power of majorities in legislatures and in Congress. They overlook the power of minorities, especially ones led by people who can count heads, know the rules and keep their ranks in line. The congressional Freedom Caucus repeatedly demonstrated its power by extracting concessions from the previous House GOP leadership or forcing it to find the votes it needed in the Democratic caucus. Senate Republicans may be looking to do the same thing in the Oregon legislature. 

Without fear of re-election retribution and with the support of major campaign financial backers, Senate Republicans have few to zero roadblocks to employing their walkout strategy again. 

Democrats may have exhausted their ability to agree to more amendments that further water down House Bill 2020 without risking greater opposition from environmental advocates who disagree “something is better than nothing.” They could agree to send a version of cap-and-trade legislation to voters, which might take the issue off the table in the 2020 session.

In a piece from July 4, Oregon Capital Insider author Dick Hughes argued that "reflective listening" is needed by the Democratic supermajority if they hope to avoid a second Senate Republican walkout and rally of truckers, farmers and loggers in efforts to pass a new version of HB 2020 in the short session.

The reason the 2017 transportation package was successful, Hughes said, was that legislative leaders established a bipartisan process early on and developed ideas from both sides of the aisle. The measure received bipartisan votes and wasn’t referred to voters. 

Is there such a path forward for major carbon policy? Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, has dropped hints there is if Republicans are given a chance to influence the shape of the legislation. There isn’t a lot of productive time between now and the 2020 short session for a bipartisan reset. There may not even be a bipartisan appetite to try, which could make another walkout a distinct parliamentary possibility.