PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s House of Representatives returned to action on Tuesday after a week of cancelled floor sessions due to multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases within the Capitol.
Lawmakers began using a computer program to automatically read hundreds of pages of proposed bills after Republicans refused to suspend the full reading of bills before a final vote — a tactic that could add hours to the passage of even simple legislation. The slow-down has been used by the minority Republican Party as frustrations about the priorities of the 2021 session increase.
In years past, both parties have agreed to skip bill-reading as it can add hours to even bipartisan legislation — but this action requires two-thirds approval.
The Republicans’ refusal to back down on the full reading of all proposed bills led to a chilly reaction from Democrats, who called the GOP’s actions “reckless and pointless.” The positive COVID-19 cases raised tensions in the Capitol, which has been closed to the public due to the pandemic.
“They’re also putting the health of all legislators, staff and their families at risk as we’re still fighting a global pandemic,” Rep. Rachel Prusak, a Democrat representing Tualatin and West Linn, tweeted Tuesday.
Last week, House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, announced that floor sessions would be cancelled for the week after an individual tested positive for COVID-19. This week, floor sessions were again canceled Monday after a second COVID-19 case and because some people were still waiting for results. Officials have not said if the people who tested positive were lawmakers or staff.
“Today is the icing on the Capitol COVID cake,” Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Portland Democrat, said last week after learning that remaining floor sessions were being cancelled. “We have been stuck in limbo, reading bills for hours due to Republican inflexibility on suspending rules. Now we all have to quarantine because we spent so long together in the chamber last week with (someone who tested positive for COVID-19).”
The canceled floor sessions were the latest delay in the House, which has a backlog of bills.
Last week, prior to the confirmed COVID-19 cases, House Minority Republican Leader Christine Drazan, a Canby Republican, wrote a letter to Kotek expressing frustrations over legislation “moving through committees despite substantial opposition and without a willingness to compromise or work to build bipartisan support.”
Drazan included a list of demands in order to end the Republican’s slow-down tactics. Among them were for the House not to exceed a regular full-time schedule for session days, only advance budgets and legislation which have bipartisan consensus support, shelve legislation which is divisive or controversial and not directly responsive to the pandemic or natural disasters, require committees to balance time among opponents and proponents and lastly to make agenda space for full participation from committee members in deliberations and amendments.
“As long as the building is closed to the public and deeply controversial legislation continues to be fast-tracked in committees, we will continue to depend on the Constitution, to remind the supermajority we should not operate like it’s business as usual while the public is shut out,” Drazan said.
Democrats have dismissed the demands as unreasonable.
Rep. Julie Fahey, a Democrat who represents West Eugene and Junction City, said reading bills in full poses as an extra risk and has very real consequences when it comes COVID-19. Fahey is among many of the lawmakers who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine yet.
“Not only are Republicans holding up critical legislation, now they are downplaying the risk of COVID after two confirmed cases in the Capitol,” Fahey tweeted Tuesday. “I spent several days last week isolating from my family until my negative test result came back. This is not a game.”
To ease the strain on the clerk who must read the bills aloud, Kotek announced that a computer would read the bills at a normal pace.
In an attempt to decrease the COVID-19 risk, lawmakers are also working in their Capitol offices as the bills are read and will return to the floor for discussions and voting.
Currently there are 43 measures that require a third reading and await a final vote in the House. However, by the time lawmakers recessed on Tuesday, reading of the first bill of the day, which is 170-pages long, had not been completed.
Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.