SALEM, Ore. — For the past month, the Oregon Senate has started its daily proceedings by dispatching a search party.
Unable to summon a quorum to vote on any legislation, the Senate president orders the sergeant-at-arms to track down the day’s missing senators, largely Republicans who are now on the fifth week of a boycott. The sergeant scales the stairwells of the Capitol, knocks on closed doors, questions staff members who coyly claim that their bosses are not present. When she returns empty-handed, the Senate adjourns, leaving hundreds of bills, stored in a growing stack of blue and yellow folders, untouched.
“I am sad to be on the front lines of watching democracy crumble,” Kate Lieber, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, said after another fruitless day trying to keep Oregon’s government running.
Oregon has long had a pronounced political split, reflecting the natural divisions between its rural farm and timber counties and its liberal cities like Portland and Eugene. But the state historically prided itself on the way its politicians usually seemed to find ground for collaboration.
That political spirit, often referred to as the “Oregon Way,” allowed a Republican governor like Tom McCall to work through the 1960s and 1970s, brokering pioneering environmental and land-use deals with Democratic legislators.
Even up until 2009, Oregon had a Democratic U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden, and a Republican one, Gordon Smith, who worked so closely together that they were sometimes called a Washington odd couple. Now both U.S. Senators are Democrats, as are all statewide elected officeholders, and there is a Democratic majority in both houses of the state Legislature. A Republican has not won a governor’s race in 40 years.
The Republican boycott that has gridlocked the Senate since May 3 — one in a series of boycotts since 2019 — signals the degree to which bipartisanship has taken a back seat to strategic dysfunction.
The standoff comes amid a particularly tumultuous year in state capitols around the country, with tensions stoked by a wave of abortion legislation — moved in the wake of last year’s decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade — and hotly contested bills on transgender issues, gun control and voting rights.
The Nebraska Legislature did not pass a single bill in the first two-thirds of its 90-day session after a progressive lawmaker mounted a series of filibusters against all legislation — including some she supported — to protest Republican efforts to pass a ban on gender-affirming care for minors.
That was also an issue in Montana, where Republicans barred a transgender lawmaker from the House chamber after she vociferously objected to a similar bill.
In April, Republicans in Tennessee expelled two Democratic legislators who had joined in protests calling for gun control in the wake of a mass shooting in Nashville, Tennessee. The lawmakers were reinstated after a national uproar.
And in Texas, acrimony between moderate and conservative factions of the Republican Party played out in the bipartisan vote on May 26 to impeach the conservative attorney general, Ken Paxton, with conservative members staunchly backing Paxton.
The discord shows no sign of abating, as red and blue states race in opposite directions on social issues and posture to combat one another’s policies across state lines. While Idaho lawmakers have moved to make it illegal to take minors to another state for an abortion without parental consent, Oregon has moved to increase access to such care for patients coming from out of state.
Republicans in the Oregon capital have vowed to derail almost all legislation unless Democrats agree to a new direction, though they have not laid out precisely what that direction might be. They have singled out legislation on abortion and transgender issues, but also targeted bills on drug policy and guns. Ten senators have continued their walkout despite a new voter-approved law that bars lawmakers with 10 or more absences from being reelected, and Democrats are now looking to impose fines on lawmakers for each day they miss. So far, neither threat has worked.
“Senate Republicans will not be bullied,” said the chamber’s minority leader, Sen. Tim Knopp.
The breakdown comes at a time when the state faces crises on several fronts. Overdose deaths have nearly doubled in the past few years. Wildfires have made devastating incursions through the Cascades. Drought has strained water systems. Portland has seen record homicide numbers. Mass homelessness has spread across the state.
Legislation that might address some of those issues has laid dormant while lawmakers have engaged in a bruising battle over a bill that would change state law to increase access to abortion services, protect abortion providers from liability and expand Medicaid coverage for transgender medical care.
Sen. Daniel Bonham, a Republican, said he was particularly concerned that the measure would allow minors to obtain an abortion without their parents’ consent, and would affirm that teenagers as young as 15 could seek gender-affirming care on their own.
“Taking this stand was a moral obligation for me,” Bonham said. He said that when he left the Senate chamber, he purposely left a Bible on his desk there, open to a passage in which Jesus says that anyone who causes a child to stumble should perhaps be drowned with a millstone around his or her neck.
That such paralyzing division has gridlocked the Senate is a dismaying turnabout for those who have long watched Oregon politics. The bipartisan cooperation of the past produced pioneering legislation that declared that Oregon’s beaches belonged to the people, not private developers, as well as the nation’s first bottle bill that sought to eliminate a growing litter problem by giving people a nickel for returning empties.
Priscilla Southwell, a professor emerita of political science at the University of Oregon, said that the culture of finding common ground extended from the state’s congressional delegation down to communities and family dinner tables.
The shift in the political winds has been years in the making. There were battles over the timber industry in the 1980s and over taxes in the 1990s. In more recent years, the steady gain in numbers by Democrats emboldened them to pursue more progressive agendas, even as Republicans began to dig in and prepare for conflict.
“That ‘Oregon Way’ has really almost vanished from the scene,” Southwell said. “The current situation is just poisonous.”
While both Democrats and Republicans have participated in brief legislative boycotts over the decades, Republicans have amped up the tactic; the latest boycott has gone weeks longer than any of the earlier ones. Some conservatives have started a movement, with ballot measures approved in a series of counties, to explore seceding from Oregon altogether and joining Idaho.
All but two Republican senators now face the prospect of being ousted from the chamber at the end of their terms under the new law, although some party leaders have suggested they plan a legal challenge to the rule.
The boycotting Republicans, along with a former Republican who is now an independent, have continued to attend committee meetings, but have made it clear that, barring Democratic concessions, they will only return to the Senate chamber at the end of the session to pass what they see as critical bills on homelessness, affordable housing and the state budget — a proposal that Democrats have called unworkable.
Sen. Lynn P. Findley, one of those boycotting, said he had seen a steady escalation in polarization as lawmakers in the middle were challenged by more extreme factions. He recalled his own decision two years ago to remain and cast a vote against a Democrat-sponsored gun-control bill, even as some Republicans refused to attend the vote and came close to denying Democrats a quorum.
The bill passed, and Findley was targeted with a recall effort by hard-line members of his party, who argued that he should have joined the walkout. That recall effort failed, but it has contributed to Findley’s concern that there is a shrinking number of lawmakers who are willing to debate and compromise.
“We can’t all run out the door if we don’t agree with the viewpoints,” he said. Findley said he joined this year’s boycott because of a different concern — his long-standing belief that legislative materials are written in a way that ordinary people cannot understand, in violation of a law that requires that they be written in plain wording.
Democrats are now assessing what tools they have to force Republicans back. After a previous Republican walkout in 2019, the governor at the time, Kate Brown, unsuccessfully tried to have state troopers round up the lawmakers and force their return. The current governor, Tina Kotek, has not made such an attempt.
The latest tactic, proposed by Democratic lawmakers, is a $325-a-day fine imposed on absentees, equivalent to their daily pay. It is not clear whether it is a stick powerful enough to produce results.
“Losing your legislative career seemed like a pretty darn big stick,” Lieber said. “That was a stick that didn’t work. So I don’t know that we have a larger stick to compel them.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.