On May 3, Oregon state Senate Republicans walked out of the Capitol and haven’t returned since, marking the longest walkout by lawmakers in the state’s prolific history of this happening. With the legislative session set to end in about two weeks, on June 25, Democrats fear hundreds of bills will be stalled until the next session. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans who have walked out have gotten so comfortable with their exiled state that they’ve convened a shadow government of sorts.
As local Oregon outlet OPB put it, Republicans on Thursday “convened an unofficial legislative committee” solely “to solicit and investigate complaints” about alleged state Democratic Party corruption. When they opened the committee to public comment, OPB notes that “every person who testified instead scolded the GOP over the walkout.”
And what, exactly, has prompted Republican legislators to decline to do their jobs for over a month now? That would be HB 2002—a bill to protect minors’ right to abortion care without parental consent and to expand the gender-affirming care procedures that insurance companies are required to cover. The expansive bill centered around bodily autonomy and health care would also shield abortion providers in Oregon from punishment or retaliation from other state governments for offering abortion care to out-of-state patients. This, state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner (D), chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and a family physician, told Jezebel, is essential to protect the many health care providers who are licensed in both Oregon and Idaho, where abortion is banned and providers can face prison-time.
Steiner, who says she “[wears] both hats” as a lawmaker and doctor, claims Republican critiques of the bill are mere political theater, as HB2002 only “clarifies rights that already exist.” As a physician, she notes that the majority of minors consult with their parents or guardians when seeking abortion care, and those who don’t usually can’t: “That includes abuse victims who may have been raped by a family member, or who may be homeless or abandoned.” She says the walkout over HB2002 is “about Republicans wanting to undermine the outcome of the 2022 election, not accepting election results, not engaging in their constitutional obligation to show up and do their job.”
This year’s legislative session now hangs in the balance, because Senate Republicans insist that the government regard minors as their parents’ property—even as physicians and advocates have testified that abortion rights for minors are especially important for child sexual abuse victims. A pregnant 12-year-old is by definition a child sexual abuse victim.
The current walkout is part of a storied history of Republican walkouts in Oregon, which also took place in 2019, 2020, and 2021 over government funding and redistricting disputes. In 2019, when Republicans walked out over a bill to offer K-12 schools $2 billion in funding, then-Gov. Kate Brown (D) attempted to bring Republicans back to the Capitol by sending out state troopers to collect them. This effort was ultimately unsuccessful because Republican legislators fled the state to avoid being rounded up.
This time around, Democratic leaders in the legislature have opted to impose $325 fines for each day Republican senators refuse to return to the Capitol—but this has proven unsuccessful, too. Gov. Tina Kotek (D), who won a tough race last November while emphasizing her strong support for abortion rights, has thus far deferred to legislators in both parties to work out their differences and shut down the idea of sending out state troopers again.
While Oregon may seem like a liberal state, Republicans there actually have quite a track record of extremism. In January 2021, the Oregon GOP famously pushed the conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false flag. The state party has since continued to accept tens of thousands in donations from donors linked with far-right groups behind the insurrection.
Steiner notes that Republicans are now using the latest abortion bill as a “pretext” to deny their constituents funding for education, roads, bridges, and infrastructure, solely because they wish to “undermine democracy.” She points to a successful ballot measure from last year that disqualifies legislators from reelection if they’re absent from 10 legislative floor sessions without permission or excuse. Due to the walkout, 10 out of 13 Senate Republicans are now disqualified from reelection.
Democratic lawmakers and party leadership are standing firmly behind HB2002, insisting that the stakes around abortion and trans rights are too high. With abortion banned in Idaho, where minors are prohibited from even traveling out-of-state for care, it’s especially urgent that Oregon lawmakers expand abortion access in the state. Some Oregon Democrats even attribute their victories last November to abortion rights, which Steiner says would render compromise on the issue a disservice to voters.
Instead of compromising on HB2002, Democratic leadership including Kotek, Senate President Rob Wagner, and House Speaker Dan Rayfield have all expressed determination to pass it in 2024. Ultimately, while Steiner says she doesn’t “have a clear position on whether there could be word-smithing” to the bill to move forward, “the fundamental principles of HB2002 cannot be modified.”
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