SALEM — At 5 p.m. on Friday, Senate President Peter Courtney stepped up to the lectern at the top of the dais of the Senate, looked out at the empty chamber, heaved a sigh, and banged a big wooden gavel.
“The Senate is adjourned; the Senate is adjourned,” the Salem Democrat said.
He put the gavel aside and walked away.
It seemed like the climax of an otherwise anti-climatic day in the ongoing Senate stalemate that has brought the Legislature to a standstill.
Then late in the afternoon came an ominous report. Courtney’s office announced that the planned Saturday meeting of the Senate would be canceled.
The reason: Militia groups who backed the 11 Republican senators who had left Salem — and perhaps the state — were planning to come to the Capitol.
“The Oregon State Police have advised us that there might be a militia threat tomorrow, so the Capitol building will be closed,” Carol Alice McCurrie, Courtney’s communications director told Willamette Week on Friday. “We don’t have any details beyond that one.”
The report sparked renewed anger among some lawmakers who oppose the Republican walkout.
“Not only have they broken their oath of office,” wrote Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, on Twitter, “their member’s threat of violence has instigated others to threaten us for trying to do our jobs & serve Oregonians.”
Steiner Hayward deleted the tweet without explanation.
Republicans immediately slammed Democrats for fear-mongering.
The chaos was indicative of the dysfunction that has roiled Salem this week. And it left the underlying political realities, for now, untouched.
Eleven Republican senators opposed to a major environmental bill remain absent. Without them, the Senate still could not form a quorum to meet.
The House, knowing the Senate was stuck, closed down Thursday with no intention of trying to meet until Monday.
Gov. Kate Brown’s order to the Oregon State Police to compel the recalcitrant Republicans’ return was still in effect. But it had brought none back to their desks.
No breakthroughs. No updates. No deals.
Somewhere far to the east — he wouldn’t say exactly where — Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, was trying to keep up with events, including any new avenues of negotiation that might be opening.
“I’ve been in three states in three days,” Knopp said. “I haven’t heard anything yet.”
Knopp is among the 11 Republican state senators who Brown says ran away from their elected duties to avoid a vote on House Bill 2020, the landmark carbon cap legislation.
The veteran lawmaker says he and the others who have left the state are using the last tool available to thwart the tyranny of the majority to pass a law that will harm their constituents.
But Knopp emphasized that this was a political disagreement. Nothing is accomplished if others inject themselves and their agendas into the situation.
Knopp said he had heard earlier reports that some armed militia groups and alt-right activists had offered to serve as bodyguards for the senators. His message: They aren’t needed or wanted.
“My hope is this protest remains peaceful,” Knopp said. “I call on groups to remain peaceful. We do not want anyone to be injured, to be hurt.”
Knopp said he had no intention of taking money from groups soliciting funds on websites like GoFundMe.com to pay the senators’ expenses and fines.
“I am not participating in that,” Knopp said. “Obviously, other people can do what they are going to do. But even if offered, I would not accept anything from them.”
Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, one of the absent senators, created controversy over his comment to a television interviewer’s question on Wednesday about the state police being ordered to apprehend him.
“Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” Boquist said. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.”
Without mentioning Boquist directly, Knopp said he wants restraint to be on everyone’s mind. Knopp plans to stay out of state, out of the jurisdiction of any troopers who are operating under Brown’s orders.
If troopers or other authorities find one of the senators, he hoped that the situation would not escalate.
“I know that they are confident that they have the capability to take action, but I do not think they will use it in this case,” Knopp said. “I believe their authority is somewhat limited. This is a civil action. They do not have warrants for criminal activity. They can request that we come with them.”
And if the senators refuse?
“There may be some people who believe they could use force,” Knopp said. “I think they are unlikely to do that. This is a political protest. They are not going to want to intervene in a political protest. That would put them at a real risk of lawsuits over our right to free speech. I don’t think it would be appropriate for those in authority to put their officers in that position.”
Since their departure, Knopp has been one of the most outspoken of traveling lawmakers, even giving an interview to radio station KBOI in Boise via phone from an undisclosed location.
Knopp knows the Oregon State Police are looking for him — Superintendent Travis Hampton told him so. By phone.
“We had a very polite conversation,” Knopp said. “Superintendent Hampton expressed his desire to have me return to the building. I indicated to him that I respected the men and women in law enforcement and the difficulty of their job. But I politely declined his invitation. He was firm, but polite. I hope that I was, too.”
Knopp scoffed at the idea that he and the other 10 Oregon senators being sought were a highly organized operation, regrouping in Idaho as an Oregon Republican Senate Caucus-in-exile.
“I’ve been traveling on my own,” Knopp said. “I don’t know where everybody is.”
Knopp said the senators were well aware that the Legislature’s regular session must end no later than a week from Sunday.
The deadline in itself would not be enough to bring the Republicans back. Neither would an offer of some slight tinkering with House Bill 2020 divide the group against each other.
“I am sure that when it comes time to decide when to return, we will decide as a caucus,” Knopp said.
For now, Knopp knows that reactions to what the 11 GOP senators are doing runs high.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who is running for president, stepped into the fray on Friday.
“To the Republican senators fleeing Oregon to stop climate change legislation,” Inslee said. “You are not welcome in Washington. Stop this foolish stunt.”
Knopp said that wasn’t a problem.
“I told everyone in the caucus not to go to California or Washington,” Knopp said of the two Democratic strongholds.
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