Senate President Peter Courtney has made bipartisanship the centerpiece of his legislative career.
Over the course of seven House terms and five in the Senate, he has reached across the aisle to Republicans. He has forged consensus on significant legislation, such as the transportation bill in 2017, and worked to keep the spirit of bipartisanship alive when efforts in any given session fell short.
Bipartisanship has made him strong. He is Oregon’s longest serving Senate president, having filled that role since 2003. In addition to Democratic allegiances, he has cultivated Republican support. He has appointed Republicans as chairs of committees and powerful subcommittees, and moved slowly on liberal Democrat priorities that traditionally antagonize conservatives, including environmental restrictions and ballot initiatives.
His reliance on bipartisanship took a turn last week when Senate Republicans walked out ahead of a vote on a climate change tax. This is the second walkout this session. The first involved the Student Success Act. Eventually Republicans were persuaded to return to vote in exchange for killing bills about vaccines and gun control.
Apparently that deal did not hold. Last week Republican senators left the building, Democrats called the police, and dozens of important bills were suddenly in jeopardy.
These Senate machinations tarnish Courtney’s legacy of bipartisanship and possibly presage the descent of Oregon legislative politics. Courtney himself saw this coming. In 2015 he gave a warning:
“We had too many bitter fights and relationships were severely damaged. ... We need to overcome our differences quickly. Oregon and her people deserve our best.”
At the close of the 2017 session he stated: “Things have been said and done that will leave wounds. That is sad. There are the times when working together is not favored. Beating the other guys is all that matters it seems.”
It’s unclear how capitulation by Senate leadership a few months ago may have prompted this situation. Republican senators did not disguise their goals, and their earlier walkout success may have emboldened them.
"Protesting cap and trade by walking out today represents our constituency and exactly how we should be doing our job. ... We will not stand by and be bullied by the majority party any longer," Senate Republican leader Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. said in a statement.
One Senate Republican actually threatened law enforcement officers doing their sworn duty. Sen. Brian Boquist warned Oregon State Police to “send bachelors and come heavily armed.”
“This is the saddest day of my legislative life. Pure and simple, my heart is broken,” Courtney said last week.
Until now bipartisanship has largely worked, but that might be ending. Perhaps it is silly to hope not. As my father sometimes reminds me, with a phrase he grabbed from a movie, “Everything ends badly. Otherwise it wouldn’t end.”