The president of the Oregon Senate said there weren’t enough votes in his majority Democratic caucus to approve a landmark climate bill that had sparked a walkout by Republicans and exacerbated tensions between urban and rural areas.
All 11 Republican senators extended their walkout involving the issue for a sixth day on Tuesday, denying Democrats enough lawmakers to muster a vote on the plan that calls for capping and trading pollution credits among companies.
Hundreds of protesters flooded the Oregon Capitol steps to protest the GOP walkout, then unexpectedly found themselves pushing back against Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney, who disclosed that the climate plan had lost support among members of his own party.
The legislation “does not have the votes on the Senate floor,” he said. “I’ve done as much as I can, and I’ll continue to try.”
Courtney pleaded with Republicans to return to the Capitol to consider much of the state budget and other issues caught up in the impasse.
The disclosure prompted young climate activists in the Senate chamber to turn their backs in protest against the Senate president. They flooded out of the Senate chamber and onto the Capitol steps, chanting, “Peter Courtney’s got to go” and “Protect our future, not the polluters.”
Conservative senators have fled the state to avoid taking a vote on what would be the nation’s second statewide cap-and-trade program after California, saying it will kill jobs, raise the cost of fuel and gut small businesses in rural areas.
Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger said in a statement that Republicans still wouldn’t return to the Capitol until they received further assurances from Democrats that the legislation was dead.
“Republicans must be assured that the vote or motion will guarantee the bill’s complete end,” Baertschiger said. “We need to have further conversations so that the Republicans feel comfortable with the process.”
The measure is intended to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases in Oregon by 2050 by capping carbon emissions and requiring businesses to buy or trade for an ever-dwindling pool of pollution “allowances.”
The disclosure on votes came after Gov. Kate Brown drew a hard line on negotiations, saying Republicans had to return to the building if they wanted to cut a deal with her. She said Democratic leaders talking with Republicans behind the scenes shouldn’t “reward bad behavior.”
“The Republicans are not standing against climate change, they’re standing against democracy,” Brown told a group of protesters outside the Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick pushed back at the idea that Democrats were rewarding bad behavior, reiterating that the legislation simply did “not have the votes.”
Burdick further disclosed that her “personal sense” was that “the votes were not there” even before Republicans chose to walk out.
Democratic senators spoke to hundreds of protesters who came to the Capitol to protest the GOP walkout. They said Courtney’s comments were disappointing but that Democrats were still fighting for a path forward.
They have made cap and trade a focal point of the legislative session, saying it’s critical to make Oregon a leader in the fight against climate change and that the policy would ultimately create jobs and transform the economy.
“The whole world is disappointed in Oregon,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, one of the lawmakers behind the plan. “But the whole world can become proud of Oregon. We need to stand together.”
Republicans’ walkout drew scrutiny and national headlines over the weekend after the Senate leader ordered the Capitol closed because of a “possible militia threat” from far-right groups, who said they would join a peaceful protest organized by Republicans.
One of those groups, the Oregon Three Percenters, joined an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 and offered safe passage to senators on the run.
The threat, however, never materialized. Fewer than 100 people showed up to protest.
Legislators have yet to approve a majority of the state budget and other Democratic priorities addressing affordable housing, paid family leave and driver’s licenses for immigrants in the country illegally. Courtney painstakingly described the work left to be done before the legislative session is set to finish at the end of the week, saying it affects “every facet” of life in Oregon.
“Please, senators, come to this floor to pass these policies and pass these budgets,” he said.
Burdick said that even if Republicans returned, she’s uncertain how lawmakers will get through the dozens of policy bills before the session is set to finish at the end of the week.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” she said.