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Capital Chatter: Disaster unfolds for minority party

They already were on the losing side of a rent-control bill early in 2019 Legislature, and the carbon cap-and-trade bill known as Clean Energy Jobs is still looming.

"The calm before the disaster," was how one Republican legislator described the climate in the Oregon Capitol.

The legislator was speaking early in the week. By Monday evening, the disaster for the minority Republicans was unfolding. They already were on the losing side of a rent-control bill early in 2019 Legislature, and the carbon cap-and-trade bill known as Clean Energy Jobs is still looming.

On a party-line vote Monday evening, a joint legislative committee passed the $2 billion Oregon Student Success Act and accompanying internal sales tax on business transactions. The full House followed suit on Wednesday, sending HB 3427 to the Senate on another party-line vote, 37-21.

Absent were Reps. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, and Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio. Despite having foot surgery on Monday, Sprenger came to the Joint Committee on Student Success meeting that evening, where she spoke passionately about problems in HB 3427. She has been recovering from the surgery since then.

After Wednesday's six-and-a-half-hour House floor session, I was left wondering whether the highlight was the beautiful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by an FFA member from Scio High School.

The other impressive performance was by House Reading Clerk Lacy Ramirez who read the entire 45-page bill word-for-word.

Ramirez deserved to receive a standing ovation, too. Her reading lasted well over two hours, her words were understandable although fast, and I recall her having only one short break. That was when Republicans demanded a "Call of the House," forcing all representatives to be on the House floor for the duration. House Speaker Tina Kotek used the time to also announce that her office and adjacent restrooms counted as the House floor, and she was providing lunch in her office for representatives.

Kotek let everyone speak.

There were profound speeches by Democrats in support of the bill and by Republicans in opposition. There also were less-than-profound speeches.

I doubt that any minds were changed, hence my wondering whether the national anthem was the highlight.

Look for clips and comments from Wednesday's debate to show in 2020 campaign commercials. Both parties used the debate to put their political opponents on the record.

Republicans have few tools to challenge the Democratic supermajority. One method is requiring that bills be read in full, which slows the process and may give Republicans some negotiating leverage later on. However, Democrats could respond by scheduling evening and weekend floor sessions, in which case Republicans could refuse to show up and thus deprive the Democrats of having a quorum to conduct business. Then the Democratic leadership could dispatch Oregon State Police to compel the Republicans' presence. And so it goes …

For the foreseeable future, House Republicans likely will insist that bills be read word-by-word.

Before House Bill 3427 passed Wednesday, House Republicans unsuccessfully sought to have it referred to the House Revenue Committee for reworking of the business tax. Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, was the one Republican who crossed party lines and voted against that referral.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, on Thursday referred the bill back to the Student Success Committee, a move that could indicate the bill lacks the three-fifths majority needed for passage in the Senate.

Gov. Kate Brown and Courtney were both Democratic leaders when their parties were in the minority, so they know what that's like.

Meeting with journalists on Thursday, Brown said she is not seeking any changes in the bill.

She said Kotek and Courtney are both skilled presiding officers and their political calculations on which bills to move forward will take into account the Republicans' potential tactics. Brown meets regularly with Kotek and Courtney. Her interactions with House Republican Leader Carl Wilson and Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., both of Grants Pass, are more random.

Although the Student Success Committee spent 16 months traveling the state and discussing school improvements, the final business-tax decisions came from Democratic leadership. Co-chair Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said she was not involved in the negotiations last weekend and Monday with the Oregon Business & Industry trade group and others.

Neither was Wilson. As Wednesday's debate wound down, he had had this to say:

"I appreciate that OBI was quoted as saying, 'We're comfortable with the agreements made,' but you know, I am Republican leader and I am still waiting for my phone to ring for the first time on these negotiations that have occurred.

"Hey, I'm here, and I'm starting to feel like the Maytag repairman — a little lonely. Nobody ever calls.

"Next time people get together and want to get some deals made, hey, remember the Republican caucus. We'd appreciate it. Thank you"

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.