Republicans AWOL and Democrats surrendering: the latest on Oregon’s climate chaos

Here's what you need to know about one of the year's biggest climate fights.

An aerial view of tractor or cat logging, a brutal form of clearcutting in which bulldozers run over the ground, dragging trees out, churning up or compacting the soil, setting stage for erosion, Saddle Mountain, Oregon. CREDIT: Gary Braasch/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
An aerial view of tractor or cat logging, a brutal form of clearcutting in which bulldozers run over the ground, dragging trees out, churning up or compacting the soil, setting stage for erosion, Saddle Mountain, Oregon. CREDIT: Gary Braasch/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

A dramatic flight by Republicans coupled with a shocking surrender by Democrats may have momentarily killed historic climate action in Oregon, even as uncertainty over the future of a sweeping cap and trade bill continues to hang over the state.

Oregon Democrats hold a supermajority in the state and Gov. Kate Brown (D) repeatedly pledged that the state would pass the Clean Energy Jobs bill (House Bill 2020) this legislative session. That bill would create a carbon pricing system, forcing businesses to purchase “allowances” in accordance with the pollutants they emit. It would also link Oregon to California’s cap and trade program, which is unique in the United States — a partnership that would be historic and could pave the way for similar climate efforts in other regions nationally.

A vote was set to occur last week on the bill. Instead, Oregon Republicans fled the state to avoid passing it, and on Tuesday, Democrats in a shock announcement said that they did not have the votes to pass the bill either way.

“We expected to have a vote. And then the Republicans left the building,” said Brad Reed, communications director for the nonprofit Renew Oregon, a group supporting the bill.


Reed told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that the situation has largely devolved into chaos, with even those on the ground not entirely sure what the state of play is. Other activists said they were unclear whether Democrats did indeed lack the votes, or if the bill itself was truly dead.

Democrats hold an 18-member majority in the state Senate, but need 20 lawmakers present in order to vote. Moreover, Democrats need the votes within their own caucus to pass the cap and trade bill — something activists said they’d been assured was a done deal.

But in comments on Tuesday, Senate President Peter Courtney (D) said that the bill “does not have the votes on the Senate floor” — a reality, he said, that “will not change.”

Courtney made his remarks as part of a larger plea to Republicans. The climate bill isn’t the only issue on the line; more than 100 budget and policy bills are still pending, with the legislative session set to expire on June 30. All of this needs to be voted on by then or government agencies will be hit hard, unless a special session is called.


But Courtney’s comments have been taken to mean one thing by those hoping for climate action in the state: Oregon’s historic effort is dead, at least for now, unless something changes drastically.

How we got here

The latest turn of events follows a dramatic saga that has played out over the last week. With the vote looming, 11 Senate Republicans fled the state last Thursday, prompting Brown to send the Oregon State Police after them. At least one lawmaker, state Sen. Brian Boquist (R), appeared to threaten violence against the officers.

“Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple,” the Republican said prior to his exodus, seemingly to Idaho where the Oregon police lack authority.

The runaway lawmakers are facing a $500 per person, per day fine every day that the Senate lacks enough members to vote. But their supporters launched a new political action committee (PAC) on June 20 to offset those costs, with a GoFundMe effort also in full swing.

The Republicans have also received support from local militias including an armed group called the Three Percenters that vowed to protect the lawmakers. Moreover, threats from various militias prompted the Oregon statehouse to briefly shut down on Saturday over safety concerns. Those threats trickled onto Reddit and seem to have resulted in the quarantining of at least one community supporting the Trump administration.


Fleeing might have been unnecessary for Republicans to block the vote — it seems that Democrats may have lacked the votes all along within their own party. As Courtney’s comments on Tuesday indicate, the party is not unanimous on the cap and trade bill, despite prior assurances from the lawmakers to the public.

Confusion surrounding lawmaker support

In order to lack the votes, at least three Democrats would need to be in opposition to the bill.

It is not immediately clear who the possible Democratic holdouts might be, although sources told The Oregonian that at least one was likely state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson (D). This could be because one point of contention has been the proposed legislation’s possible impact on Boeing, which opposes the bill and has a factory in Gresham, Oregon, a city represented by Monnes Anderson. Democratic state Sens. Betsy Johnson and Arnie Roblan have also been critics of the bill.

The state is one of only 11 that allows people to give as much money as they want to political candidates and one of only seven that allows the same from corporations. A lengthy investigation by The Oregonian in February found that despite Oregon’s lofty climate goals, repeated efforts by powerful industries to sway lawmakers and reign in legislation has significantly weakened or stalled momentum in the state — they’ve been trying to pass cap and trade since at least 1997.

Republicans in particular have been in staunch opposition to the bill, dismissing it as costly. They have also expressed concerns about the impact to industries like logging; Oregon is one of the leading producers of timber in the United States.

But even after Courtney’s announcement on Tuesday, Republicans declined to head back to the state. Tim Knopp, one Republican representing the city of Bend, said the runaway lawmakers needed “more clarification” before returning home. Reed of Renew Oregon argued that the refusal to return indicates that the absentee lawmakers have made the issue about more than a climate bill, especially with so many must-pass pieces of legislation now in limbo.

“This is not about a climate bill, this is about legislative responsibilities and functions,” he said.

What does this mean for climate action in Oregon?

Oregon has been working towards carbon pricing for more than 20 years and activists said they were left reeling following the unexpected turn of events. But not everyone has given up hope.

The bill has widely been reported as dead, but Reed asserted that it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusion at this time. Despite Courtney’s comments that Democrats do not have the votes, Reed is skeptical, arguing that nothing can be certain until a vote occurs.

“We don’t know who’s not telling the truth,” said Reed, expressing confusion about mixed messaging from Democrats pledging to support the bill. “We still believe if this bill is brought to the floor, it will pass.” If it does not, he said pointedly, “we would like to see which Democrats are against climate action.”

Many climate advocates have also said they are undeterred by the setback. Tom Kelly, chair of Oregon Business for Climate, said in a statement that the unfolding drama “is not how we do things in Oregon” and slammed “an orchestrated misinformation campaign” he said was “led by a vocal minority” culminating in the Republican walkout.

“Our climate fate will be sealed in just over a decade,” Kelly said, pledging to continue climate action efforts. “We have no time to waste and intend to continue to press for passage of this legislation now.”

Democrats themselves have offered confusing messaging on what might come next. In order to kill the bill, a quorum would need to be present. Two potential courses of action could be to postpone the vote indefinitely or send it back to a committee. Republicans have also said they are unconvinced that Democrats won’t pass the bill if they return.

Meanwhile time is ticking, with the legislative session ending Sunday.

House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) vowed that she would continue pushing “strong climate legislation” this session, while Gov. Brown has indicated she too is willing to continue fighting and could call a special session in July, extending the legislative period beyond the deadline. She has also said she will not negotiate with Republicans until they return to Oregon.

“I’ve said many times, and I’ll say it again: Future generations will judge us not on the fact of global climate change but on what we’ve done to tackle it,” Brown said on Tuesday. “We are [determined to act] and we will with your help.”

Nothing can truly happen, however, until the absentee lawmakers return, something Reed emphasized.

“We need to get the Republicans back,” he said. “We have not given up.”