Republican senators threaten lawsuit in climate standoff

Republican senators in Oregon engaged in a high-stakes game of brinksmanship Friday with Democratic lawmakers and prepared to remain absent from the Capitol for a second day.

Posted: Jun 21, 2019 10:28 AM
Updated: Jun 21, 2019 11:57 AM

By SARAH ZIMMERMAN and GILLIAN FLACCUS Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Republican senators in Oregon engaged in a high-stakes game of brinksmanship Friday with Democratic lawmakers, saying they are prepared to sue if the Senate president goes through with her threat to impose a $500 fine for each day they delay a vote on a landmark climate plan that would be the second of its kind nationwide .

"We will file legal action," said Sen. Tim Knopp, a Republican from Bend who has said he has been in three states in the past three days. "If they were trying to bring us back, threatening to arrest us and impose fines isn't going to work."

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick pushed back, saying Republicans have no legal course as the fine is explicitly written in statute.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown deployed the state police Thursday to try to round up 11 Republican senators who fled the Legislature — and in some cases, the state — to thwart the passage of a cap-and-trade proposal that would dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The minority GOP caucus wants the plan to be sent to voters instead of being instituted by lawmakers — but negotiations with Democrats collapsed, leading to the headline-grabbing walkout.

"It's time for the Senate Republicans to show up and do the job they were elected to do," Brown, a Democrat, said at a news conference Thursday.

But none of the GOP senators appeared Friday morning. A GoFundMe to cover the rogue lawmakers' expenses and fines raised over $4,000 in less than a day.

State Police can force any senators they track down in Oregon into a patrol car to return them to the Capitol, although the agency said in a statement that it would use "polite communication" and patience to bring the rogue lawmakers back. Knopp confirmed that he was contacted by the state police, but he said he declined the superintendent's request to return back to the statehouse.

The GOP senators will be fined $500 a day per person if enough of them remain absent to prevent a vote. Democrats have an 18 to 12 majority in the chamber, but need 20 members present for a quorum. One GOP senator recently died and has not yet been replaced.

The state police don't have jurisdiction outside Oregon and it was unclear what troopers were doing to find the lawmakers and get them to return.

Republicans aren't just holding up a climate plan, but a significant portion of the state budget including funding for the state's health care, foster care and higher education agencies.

"If we don't get that passed, we're going to see some real disruption in the services that people depend on," said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland.

The Legislature this week approved a continuing resolution to prevent those agencies from shutting down, funding them at current service levels in the event a budget isn't approved by June 30, the constitutional end of session.

Knopp said Republicans would be willing to return to the statehouse to solely vote on budget bills.

"We would come back if that's what Democrats want to vote on," he said. "At this time, that hasn't been offered. As far as I'm concerned, the Democrats are responsible for this impasse."

Burdick said it's not Republicans' "job to dictate what we can pass and what we can't pass."

"They're responsible for being here," she said.

The walkout also puts other major Democratic priorities on hold, including affordable housing, tobacco taxes and paid family leave. Legislation addressing these topics sailed through the House Thursday, but their fate remains uncertain with the Senate shutdown.

This is the second time in this legislative session that minority GOP lawmakers have used a walkout as a way to slow the process. Democrats have a rare supermajority in the House and Senate, meaning Republicans don't have many ways to influence the debate.

Republicans walked out of the Senate last month to block a school funding tax package. The standoff lasted four days, until the governor struck a deal to table legislation on gun control and vaccine requirements.

The tactic is rare, but it has been used throughout history. Abraham Lincoln once leapt out of a window in an attempt to deny a quorum when he was a lawmaker in Illinois.

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 Democrats returned to Texas after the bill's deadline passed, and it was effectively killed.

On Thursday, Oregon's Senate president pleaded with Republicans to return.

"I beg and beseech my fellow legislators to come to the floor. I need you, the Legislature needs you, the people of Oregon need you to pass budgets to take care of our citizens," Senate President Peter Courtney said on the Senate floor.

Under the proposed cap-and-trade bill, Oregon would put an overall limit on greenhouse gas emissions and auction off pollution "allowances" for each ton of carbon industries plan to emit. The legislation would lower that cap over time to encourage businesses to move away from fossil fuels: The state would reduce emissions to 45% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Those opposed to the cap-and-trade plan say it would exacerbate a growing divide between the liberal, urban parts of the state and the rural areas. The plan would increase the cost of fuel, damaging small business, truckers and the logging industry, they say.

Democrats say the measure is an efficient way to lower emissions while investing in low-income and rural communities' ability to adapt to climate change. It has the support of environmental groups, farmworkers and some trade unions.

The proposal also contains a $10 million investment to protect workers adversely affected by climate change policy.

California has had for a decade an economy-wide cap and trade policy like the one Oregon is considering. Nine northeastern states have more limited cap-and-trade programs that target only the power sector.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

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Multnomah31877528
Washington21211212
Marion18468285
Clackamas13380175
Lane10258126
Jackson8395112
Umatilla765982
Deschutes595259
Yamhill378364
Linn359056
Malheur335158
Polk306442
Klamath279155
Douglas247454
Benton234416
Josephine234050
Jefferson195828
Coos149119
Union128419
Columbia126521
Wasco122126
Lincoln113220
Hood River106929
Morrow104914
Clatsop7756
Crook77518
Baker6567
Curry4296
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Lake3766
Harney2736
Grant2231
Wallowa1424
Gilliam531
Sherman530
Wheeler221
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Reported Deaths: 52158
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San Diego2600913284
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Kern102627827
Fresno953931443
Sacramento932811472
Alameda806681242
Ventura77623844
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Contra Costa62248681
Stanislaus56132946
Tulare47784758
Monterey42138328
San Mateo38998515
San Francisco34260412
Santa Barbara31805411
Solano30024164
Merced28915397
Sonoma28141298
Imperial26903591
Kings21955218
Placer19763232
San Luis Obispo19612227
Madera15467209
Santa Cruz14588183
Marin13136197
Yolo12834185
Shasta10985174
Butte10962160
El Dorado9095100
Napa903869
Sutter884597
San Benito576759
Yuba573337
Lassen560119
Tehama508152
Nevada396074
Tuolumne394659
Mendocino379643
Amador346341
Humboldt318033
Lake315641
Glenn222523
Colusa212813
Calaveras190547
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