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Tense days in Oregon Legislature ahead of redistricting deadline

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 24, 2021

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)
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/Report For America

In the final days leading up to Oregon’s redistricting deadline, state House Democrats remain adamant about their proposed new political maps and think they have cleared a path to pass them while Republicans are contemplating a walkout to block those plans.

With the deadline to redraw Oregon’s electoral boundaries approaching Monday stakes are high for both the GOP and and Democrats in a year when the state has gained a sixth U.S. House seat — increasing the Pacific Northwest state’s national political clout.

The House is scheduled to return to the floor on Saturday at 9 a.m., following a three-day pause due to a COVID-19 case in the Capitol in Salem.

Democrats have majorities in the House and Senate but don’t have large enough advantages to convene without a few Republicans present.

Quorum rules say there must be two-thirds of lawmakers - 40 representatives on the House floor – for votes to take place. Oregon is one of the few states that require two-thirds of lawmakers to be present for any work to be done, instead of a simple majority.

“The window for collaborating has ended,” Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat and chair of the House congressional redistricting committee, said Wednesday.

Lawmakers returned to the Oregon Capitol on Monday to complete redistricting plans, a once-a-decade process that determines how voters pick state representatives, state senators and members of Congress for the next five election cycles.

While the Senate swiftly passed legislative and congressional maps — without Republican support — work came to a standstill in Oregon’s House.

During the 2021 legislative session, House Democrats gave up a powerful advantage. In exchange for the Republicans agreeing to stop blocking bills with delay tactics, House speaker Tina Kotek agreed to share redistricting power with the GOP — essentially granting veto power to the minority party over what the six congressional districts and the state’s 90 legislative districts will look like.

But Monday afternoon Kotek voided that power-sharing deal, saying she was “disappointed that after many months of work, House Republicans did not engage constructively despite many attempts to address their concerns.”

Democrats accused Republicans of proposing last minute maps that were “highly gerrymandered’ - the manipulation of electoral district boundaries to win an unfair political advantage.

With Democrats having the majority on the new congressional redistricting committee and in the Legislature, it paves the way for them 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.

“Absolutely the maps that the Senate passed is what is going to go through,” Salinas said. The Democrats’ map proposes that new congressional District 6 should be south of Portland, Oregon’s biggest city, and west of Interstate 5. Republicans also put it south of Portland, but on the east side of the interstate.

But Republicans still have one powerful tool to block the passage of the maps — a walkout.

If Republicans don’t go to the floor of the House then the chamber won’t have a quorum — meaning lawmakers wouldn’t be able to proceed with business.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan says 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.

The minority leader said she is continuing to have conversations with House Democrats about amending the proposed maps, however she has yet to see any progress.

If congressional maps are not passed by Sept. 27, the task will fall to a panel of five retired judges appointed by the Oregon Supreme Court.

If the state 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.

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