SALEM, Ore. — The sergeant-at-arms of the Oregon Senate had a new regular duty in recent days: Searching the state Capitol for Republican senators who had been staying away and brought the legislative body’s business to a halt.
The tactic by the minority Republicans is rare in Oregon, but has been used throughout history, sometimes creating comical scenes. Abraham Lincoln once leapt out of a window in an attempt to deny a quorum when he was a lawmaker in Illinois. In Washington three decades ago, U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Oregon) was carried feet first into the Senate chamber after Democrats ordered the arrest of Republican senators who were denying a quorum.
The Oregon standoff ended on its fifth day Monday. It had been caused by GOP senators’ anger at a bill that raises taxes on some businesses to fund education. To get the Republicans to return, Democrats agreed not to advance a measure requiring vaccinations for children to attend public schools, unless they have a doctor’s note. Democrats also reportedly agreed to drop gun-control legislation.
Rep. Cheri Helt, a Republican and co-sponsor of the vaccination bill, was incensed that it was sacrificed. Few Republicans were for the measure that vaccination opponents had flocked to the Capitol to protest.
Helt tweeted on Monday that “the loudest/most extreme voices in our politics prevailed.”
In what had become a routine during the standoff that began May 7, Senate President Peter Courtney stood at the podium, surveying Democratic senators who were milling around and chatting. One filmed using Facebook Live, excoriating the missing Republicans. Roll calls were ordered. All 18 Democratic senators were present. Sometimes Tim Knopp, a moderate Republican, was too. But 19 senators was one short of a quorum required for the Senate to convene.
So Courtney ordered sergeant-at-arms Leta Edwards, a retired university administrator, to round up some Republicans. Dressed smartly in a blue blazer, Edwards on Friday exited the chamber, and rushed up two flights of stairs to the senators’ offices to knock on doors.
Some senators had taken to leaving their doors open to their empty offices, to save Edwards the trouble of knocking. An assistant at another senator’s office told Edwards he was not in and declared she had no idea where he was.
Meanwhile someone created a joke Twitter account, called Senate R’s Hideout, whose followers include Democrats and journalists.
“We’re running low on beef jerky and Linthicum won’t shut up about Game of Thrones,” says one tweet, referring to Sen. Dennis Linthicum.
Some quorum-denial efforts have led to extremes. In 2003, Texas Democrats fled to neighboring Oklahoma to deny a quorum, holing up in a Holiday Inn to block a GOP redistricting bill. The Republican House speaker ordered state troopers to find the Democrats and have them arrested. The Democrats returned to Texas after the bill’s deadline passed and it was effectively killed.
Back in the Oregon State Capitol, Edwards knocked on the door of Sen. Fred Girod on Friday.
“Hello? Hello? Sen. Girod! Sen. Girod,” she said. No reply. An hour after eluding Edwards -- and after Courtney was forced to cancel Friday morning’s Senate session -- Girod popped up, appearing alongside Courtney at a subcommittee hearing. Courtney scowled.
On Monday, Courtney delayed his attempt to convene the Senate in the morning, and convened it instead at 3 p.m.
Senate Republican leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., had negotiated with Courtney to end the stalemate, officials said.
The November 2018 election gave Democrats a three-fifths supermajority in Oregon’s Senate and House of Representatives, enabling them to pass tax-raising measures without getting Republicans on board. But they didn’t have enough seats for a quorum.
“The tactic of denying a quorum doesn’t mean we shut them down forever,” Baertschiger said on the Lars Laron Show, a conservative talk radio program. “We all know that we’re gonna have to return. But what it does do is shine a light on what the Democrats are trying to do to us.”
Baertschiger attended the Senate on Monday afternoon, allowing the body to reach its minimum 20 senators for a quorum.
Associated Press reporters Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, and John O’Connor in Springfield, Illinois contributed to this report.
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky
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