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COVID case delays contentious redistricting in Oregon

Oregon State Representatives congregate in the House, prior to the meeting being adjourned due to a COVID-19 exposure, during a special legislative session for redistricting congressional maps, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore.  (BRIAN HAYES)
By Sara Cline Associated Press Associated Press/Report for America

A broken power-sharing deal, the lingering possibility of a Republican walkout and a COVID-19 case are adding greater uncertainty to whether Oregon legislators will successfully redraw the state’s political districts ahead of a tight deadline.

Stakes are high as Oregon gained a new, sixth U.S. House seat following the latest census.

Lawmakers were told the House would reconvene in Salem Wednesday morning following news Tuesday that someone in the building had tested positive for COVID-19. But House Speaker Tina Kotek later said the chamber won’t convene until Saturday to give time for those exposed to the coronavirus case to be tested and receive results.

Democrats say their entire caucus in the House has been vaccinated. The number of Oregon’s vaccinated Republican lawmakers was not immediately available.

When the House reconvenes on Saturday lawmakers will have just two days to vote on and pass new political boundaries before a Sept. 27 deadline. If congressional maps are not passed by that deadline, the task will fall to a panel of five retired judges appointed by the Oregon Supreme Court.

But who will return to the Capitol when the House doors reopen remains in question.

Following the decision of Kotek, a Democrat, to rescind a power-sharing deal to redraw political maps that she made with the House GOP, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan told the Associated Press on Wednesday that a GOP walkout is “on the table.”

“The Democrats can choose a walkout or the Democrats can choose to advance maps that are fair to Oregonians,” Drazan said.

If Republicans don’t go to the floor of the House the chamber won’t have a quorum – meaning lawmakers wouldn’t be able to proceed with business. Both parties have used walkouts – a tool made available by the Oregon Constitution – in the past, with Republicans relying on it in recent years. Most notably in 2019, when Republicans used it to stop a cap-and-trade bill.

In exchange for Republicans to stop blocking bills with delaying tactics during the 2021 legislative session, the House Speaker had said she would evenly split the House Redistricting Committee – essentially granting veto power to the GOP over any proposed map.

Kotek’s announcement to pull back from the deal on Monday left Republicans furious, as it now gives Democrats a powerful advantage to pass maps they choose – likely resulting in five of the U.S. House seats being blue to Republicans’ one. Currently, Democrats hold four of Oregon’s five House seats.

“She lied and broke her promise not just to us but to Oregonians,” Republican Leader Christine Drazan said in a statement about Kotek.

In a statement, Kotek said she was “disappointed that after many months of work, House Republicans did not engage constructively despite many attempts to address their concerns,” which led to her decision to void the standing deal.

The Senate passed maps on Saturday, without Republican support. Those maps also need to be voted on in the House.

Drazan said she is continuing to have conversations with House Democrats about amending the proposed maps.

“I am talking to two folks across the aisle,” she said. “Now, the question becomes, ‘Will they will they want to change approach?’ I don’t know.”

In addition to the six congressional districts, lawmakers are also responsible for passing 90 legislative districts which determines how voters pick state representatives and state senators.

If the legislative maps are not passed by Monday, the task will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a progressive Democrat who few Republicans would want to see in charge of that process.