Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek told state representatives to expect a return to the Capitol for in-person floor sessions starting Monday, March 29, nearly a week after the discovery of a COVID-19 case in House chambers sent lawmakers home.
In a statement Friday night, Kotek said the House appeared to have dodged an outbreak. But she said lawmakers would need to be in the Capitol five days next week, to make up for time lost while effectively quarantining.
That schedule is unlikely to lower the temperature between House Democrats and Republicans, who for weeks have been jawing over the scope and location of the session.
Both parties accuse the other of endangering lawmakers' health with how the floor sessions are conducted, and have traded jabs in the days after Kotek sent lawmakers home. (The speaker made that decision after learning someone was diagnosed with COVID-19 after being in House chambers March 15 and 16.)
On March 22, the morning before the COVID exposure was announced, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) sent Kotek a letter demanding that only bills with bipartisan support get hearings—or Republicans would continue to force full readings of bills on the House floor, which increase the time lawmakers spend together in person.
"This is a year for healing," Drazan wrote in the letter, obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting. "It is not a time for deeply divisive, partisan legislation while the public is locked out of the building."
In the same letter, Drazan argued that the pace of committee hearings, held online, was taxing to the health of lawmakers and their staff. "Branch staff and legislators alike are put at extreme risk by the proposed work schedule, which is designed to exert pressure and ensure the passage of controversial legislation, at the expense of public health," she wrote.
Asked for comment by WW that evening, Kotek replied that Republicans were using tactics that endangered people in the Capitol, after spending much of the session asking for the public to return to the building.
"Our goal this session has always been to keep people safe and do the people's work," she said. "It's disappointing that these slow-down tactics are being normalized and putting the health of legislators and staff at risk, while also delaying the passage of bills that will be critical to our public health, economic recovery and commitment to real racial justice reforms."
The subtext of these accusations: Democrats hold a supermajority in the House, and can pass whatever bills their caucus agrees on, so long as Republicans don't skip town. So Democrats intend to pass as much of their agenda as possible this spring. Republicans, who are badly outnumbered, would like to reduce the scope of the legislative session as much as they can, until they stand a better chance of mounting popular opposition to the majority agenda. That means longer meetings in person.
Kotek and Drazan will get to enjoy each other's company again as soon as Monday, if no additional COVID cases are detected among people in the Capitol next week.