SALEM — Seven minutes.
That’s all it took for Senate President Peter Courtney to thrust the already-tense Capitol into sheer chaos Tuesday.
Senate Republicans have vacated the Capitol in protest of landmark legislation to cap the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, making the building a tinderbox sensitive to tiny political sparks.
Senate Democrats can’t vote on the bill — which passed the House last week — unless at least two Republicans are present.
Courtney, an old-timer Democrat from Salem who has led the Senate since 2003, stepped up to the dais Tuesday morning with a remarkable declaration: House Bill 2020, a landmark proposal, did not have the votes to pass the Senate.
“No one has told me to say this,” Courtney said. “There is no strategy to what I’m about to say. There’s just Peter. House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor. That will not change.”
Some of his fellow Democrats in the chamber — who are divided on the bill — appeared caught off guard.
Courtney didn’t say outright that the legislation is done for.
But Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, did.
“These votes are not suddenly going to turn to yes,” Burdick told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “We are certain of that. I would call it dead.”
Over the past few weeks, the vote count in the Senate has been in flux after the legislation passed the House. There are 18 Democrats. The bill must get 16 votes to pass.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was a solid no.
Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, was leaning no, and on Tuesday told the Oregon Capital Bureau he would vote against the bill.
Sens. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, were heavily courted by both sides.
Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon, an environmental group that lobbied extensively for HB 2020, said both told him they would vote for the bill.
As of late last week, Democrats pushing the bill said they weren’t certain enough votes were there, but they wanted to put it out for a floor vote to see what happened.
Courtney, however, is not a fan of voting on bills without knowing they will pass.
“I was personally one of the ones who wanted this bill on the floor because I wanted to raise my hand and say ‘yes,’” Burdick said.
Burdick, a “fervent” supporter of the bill, said that Tuesday’s announcement wasn’t the end of the cap and trade idea, but there was no path left in the current session, scheduled to end by Sunday night.
Burdick said she wasn’t surprised by Courtney’s comments, but she knows others weren’t aware of his plan.
Renew Oregon, a coalition of groups agitating for policies to address climate change, had already planned a rally outside the Capitol for Tuesday.
Thanks to the fuel from Courtney’s statements, environmental activists were chanting outside by 11:30 a.m. and had quickly crafted signs condemning the Senate president.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, a key author of the cap and trade bill, took to the podium, giving a barn-burner speech out of character for the typically reserved Portland Democrat.
“It is hard to be green, but it is so important for us to keep pushing and pushing and pushing, because the people who organized this walkout, who have fled the state, are counting on us just giving up this battle,” Dembrow said, eliciting boos from the supportive crowd. “In fact, they’re saying that House Bill 2020, our climate action program, in general, is set up to ruin the people of their districts. And that’s the rhetoric they’re using to go away and to stay away. In fact, that’s not true. That’s not why they’re gone.”
He said he would continue to fight for the concept, as would the Democratic senators with him as he spoke: Shemia Fagan and Kathleen Taylor of Portland, Floyd Prozanski and James Manning Jr. of Eugene, Sara Gelser of Corvallis, Jeff Golden of Ashland, and Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego.
“We are looking at a couple of very difficult days ahead of us,” Dembrow said. “And I need to know that everyone who is here around me is committed to this struggle. Are you? Because,
speaking for the people who are behind me, we are.”
Gov. Kate Brown, emerging from her office after Courtney’s speech, declined to speak with a reporter, power walking toward the rally on the Capitol steps to urge lawmakers to pass the climate bill.
“Let me make this perfectly clear: The Republicans are not standing against climate change,” Brown told the crowd. “They’re standing against democracy.”
“We need to make sure that the legislative branch operates, and we need to make sure that Republicans come back to do their jobs,” Brown said.
She asked the crowd if they had the “passion” and “persistence” needed to pass the bill — cheers. She raised her fist, then turned on her heel and stepped back into the Capitol.
Republican senators disappeared after talks with Democratic counterparts last Wednesday didn’t produce a deal.
Republicans wanted the environmental legislation amended, including stripping out an emergency clause so the matter could be referred to voters through petition.
Supporters of HB 2020 say Oregonians voted Democrats into office to enact climate change policies.
“I think it just shows that Courtney is not fit to lead, if he's not willing to stand up,” said Oregon Business for Climate spokeswoman Devon Downeysmith.
She added, “The kids are here fighting for their future. And with a supermajority that we elected, where people ran specifically on HB 2020, there's no reason why we can't have it all.”
“Well, I just feel this bill is so important,” said Jeanne Chouard, a speech and language pathologist from Ashland who came to Salem for the rally Tuesday. “And I was dismayed that the Republican senators wouldn’t show up to take a vote on that. They’re trying to thwart our democracy.”
“Because I work with so many young children, I think it’s really important to think about our long-range future,” Chouard said. “And I know change is difficult, for many people, we’re all going to have to make changes. But in southern Oregon, we are really feeling the effects already of climate change in our agriculture sector, in the quality of our air, because of the longer, hotter summers that are drying out our forests, we’re getting more and more smoke.”
Opponents of the bill are planning a Thursday morning rally.
A spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said Courtney’s remarks will “ramp up” negotiations between the Senate president and Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass.
On Tuesday afternoon, the lone person in the Senate Republican caucus office was Justin Brecht, a policy analyst.
He didn’t have updated information on negotiations, but said the Republican senators had a conference call planned for Tuesday afternoon.
Republicans didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get back to Salem.
“This is good news,” Baertschiger said in a statement. “However, we are still trying to sort out the process. The bill itself has been second read and a vote will have to take place. Republicans must be assured that the vote or motion will guarantee the bill’s complete end. We need to have further conversations so that the Republicans feel comfortable with the process."
Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said Courtney’s announcement was “wonderful,” and he thinks there will be further negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, but he wants more concessions before he’s willing to return.
“They want to jury-rig the election that's going to be for the repeal of the gross-receipts tax. That's not acceptable,” Girod said, referring to Senate Bill 116, which schedules a January special election if there’s a referendum on the tax for public education. “That's one I would not compromise on. And there are several others.”
Burdick said the apparent failure of HB 2020 wasn’t a win for Republicans, and their actions have frayed already poor relationships between the parties.
“This is not helping anyone in our caucus, it’s not helping anyone in the Legislature and it’s not helping anyone in Oregon,” Burdick said. “This is an act of — I don’t know what to call it — I want to call it terrorism. They are not doing their job and it’s fractured the entire institution.”
Burdick said Democrats aren’t negotiating on any bills with Republicans at this point.
“You cannot negotiate with someone who is not here,” she said.
Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton, a Democratic whip, compared the climate bill to others he spent multiple sessions working to pass.
“Maybe that’s how these things go,” said Hass, who supports HB 2020. “I would like to see it come up in a special session.”
Several Republican senators have fled to Idaho, including Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who lives near the Idaho state line.
Bentz told the Malheur Enterprise Tuesday that he’s not sure how Republicans will proceed after Courtney’s announcement. He was noncommittal about returning to Oregon.
“I don’t know what it means,” Bentz told the Enterprise.
Girod said he and his wife are in Texas, although he declined to say exactly where. Even if Republicans agree to end their boycott, he’s not sure there is time for all of them to return and complete the Legislature’s work.
Still, Girod added, “I think that we're a lot closer than we were before the day started.”
Baertschiger and Sens. Brian Boquist of Dallas, Bill Hansell of Athena, Dallas Heard of Roseburg, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, Alan Olsen of Canby, Kim Thatcher of Keizer, and Chuck Thomsen of Hood River didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.