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Oregon Republican Standoff (copy)

A group including three Democratic senators stand among the empty desks of Republican senators during a Senate floor session Tuesday at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem. Republicans denied the Senate a quorum so they could avoid voting on an education revenue bill.

As we wrote this editorial on Wednesday afternoon, it was uncertain when the members of the state Senate's Republican caucus would return to the Capitol, to give the Senate the 20-member caucus required for that body to take any action whatsoever.

Negotiations were continuing between Democratic leaders and the members of the Republican Senate caucus; Republicans, who are in what they have jokingly called a "super minority," don't have the floor strength to vote down bills that would raise taxes — such as the gross receipts tax on certain Oregon businesses that would raise an estimated $1 billion a year for the state's K-12 schools. 

That bill, House Bill 3427, is among the current bones of contention between Republicans and Democrats; Republicans say they want the bill sent back to committee for changes that they have not specified, possibly part of a strategy to put it in limbo until the clock runs out on the session. That's probably a long shot, especially with nearly two months remaining in the session. (This walkout strategy — which, to be fair, Democrats have used in the past — tends to work best at the very end of a session, when time truly is at a premium.) 

Republicans also want to see a handful of other bills killed, including the proposed carbon cap-and-trade measure, House Bill 2020, and an omnibus gun-control bill, Senate Bill 978. They also want Democrats to guarantee the passage of Senate Bill 2008, which would end the automatic referral of juvenile suspects charged with Measure 11 crimes to adult court. (This bill has been championed by Republican Sen. Jackie Winters.)

In exchange, Republicans said they would return to the Senate — and also would provide five votes of support to a series of measures aimed at reforming Oregon's public pension system, which would suggest that Democrats are not at all united in their support for pension reform.

At this point, you may be wondering the same thing that we wondered: Why does the state Senate require 20 members for a quorum in the first place? After all, most other bodies define a quorum — the minimum number of people needed before any official action can be taken — as 50% plus one. If that was the case in the Senate, you could have an quorum with just 16 members — and since Democrats hold 18 seats, any Republican attempt to prevent the quorum would be moot. (And that gross receipts tax would be heading to Gov. Kate Brown's desk for her signature.)

Here's the answer: The state constitution requires both the Senate and the House of Representatives to have two-thirds of their members present for a quorum. That works out to 20 members in the Senate, and 40 in the 60-member House. It's very unusual for any political party to hold those kinds of majorities in the Legislature, so our speculation is that this provision in the state constitution is designed in part to encourage bipartisan cooperation.

That it hasn't worked that way, at least in this case, is a signal that Republican legislators have run out of other cards to play — although if the measure eventually passes the Legislature, as we expect it will, you can be sure that at least some GOP stalwarts will be on the front lines of the inevitable campaign to overturn the tax at the ballot box.

Regardless of how this plays out, you had to feel bad for 13-year-old Linus O'Brien of Albany, who traveled to the Capitol on Tuesday to serve as one of the Senate's honorary pages for the day. Linus and the day's other page, 15-year-old Sean Miller of Keizer, were planning to perform the honor guard ceremony for the Senate but never got a chance to do that.

Both said they applied for the honor because they wanted to get more acquainted with the inner workings of government. In a way, they got that. (mm)

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