So, yeah, Oregon. Where there’s an increasing chance of an armed standoff between the government and… the government.
First, a little background. As of the last election, the Democrats enjoy full control of the Oregon government, including a supermajority in both the House and Senate. But not, as we’ll see, a super-duper-majority. They’ve used their legislative power well, passing a fairly impressive tranche of progressive bills. Another stack of which have cleared the House and are awaiting Senate approval. At the top of that stack is House Bill 2020, a cap-and-trade bill intended as an emergency measure to help combat climate change.
This mortally offended the remaining Republican Senators. Eleven of them (the whole of the caucus) failed to appear for the scheduled vote. And although there aren’t enough of them to affect the vote itself in any way, that is enough to deny the body a quorum; no votes can occur without at least some of the Republicans present. In and of itself, that sort of thing is unusual, but not unheard of. It has happened in Idaho, Oregon, and Texas (at least), over a variety of issues ranging from redistricting to union rights; both parties have been the walkout group at different times. Typically, there’s some negotiation, and the errant Congressmen agree to return, sometimes in exchange for some concession regarding the debated legislation.
This… isn’t looking like normal.
Negotiations broke down entirely, and, citing state law that allows the majority party to “compel” the return of the absent legislators, the Senate Democrats formally requested that the governor coerce the Republicans to return. She agreed, and directed the Oregon State Police to arrange for the return of the absent members of Congress.
However, because this hadn’t escalated enough, Republican Senator Brian Boquist told KGW news that the state police should “[s]end bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.” Yesterday, in their reporting on this comment, The Oregonian described the statement as a “thinly veiled” threat of violence. Boquist objected to the description; at least he’s honest. “Nothing thinly veiled,” he wrote in response. “I have been in political coup attempts. I have been held hostage overseas. I have been jailed politically overseas … Not going to be arrested as a political prisoner in Oregon period.” And these might not be idle threats: Boquist is an Army veteran whose businesses have connections with paramilitary operations. The Republicans are all known or believed to have fled the state of Oregon into Idaho, because the Oregon State Police’s jurisdiction to seize them ends at the border. However, the Democrats at one point issued a statement that they were receiving assistance from out-of-state agencies, which … well, I have no idea what that implies, to be honest.
At this point, some readers may recall that Oregon was the site of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge militia occupation and wonder: “Can this get worse?”
Narrator: It got worse.
The Oath Keepers and the 3% militias have chimed in now, offering their support for the absconded Republicans and pledging to “provide security, transportation, and refuge for those Senators in need.” It isn’t clear at this time whether any of the Republican Senators have been in contact with the militia groups or taken them up on this offer. There’s also a GoFundMe, of uncertain provenance, which I will opt not to link to here. As of this writing, “Encourage the Walking Senators” has seen $17,000 [Update2: now well over $20k] pledged. Because of course it has.
But Republicans raising money from their base by horrific, democracy-destroying grandstanding isn’t new, or the problem here. The increasing potential of this to lead to an armed standoff between Republican-supported militia and the Oregon police? That’s the problem.
EDIT: So there have been questions about what constitutes a quorum and how many Republicans are actually involved in this. Some reporting claimed that 11 Republicans have fled the state; The Guardian says 12. How many Republicans are there?
The answer is 11. There are 30 seats in the Oregon Senate; 20 members are required for a quorum. 18 of them are held by Democrats. Until a few weeks ago, there were 12 Republicans; however, then-Minority Leader Jackie Winters died of lung cancer on May 29. Currently, the Senate seat for the 10th District remains vacant. This gives the Democrats an 18-11 supermajority for the purposes of voting, but requites the participation of at least 2 Republicans in order to have a quorum and permit business to be done.
Update: So the big open question was whether the Republicans were in any way coordinating with the militia elements. At least according to a militia-adjacent group, that answer is now yes. On Facebook, an event variously advertised as a march or protest is being scheduled for June 27. The event’s name? “Rally to Take the Capitol!” The organizers claim that the impetus for the event came from an (unnamed) Republican state Senator. Obviously, militia members and those politically adjacent to them are often unreliable narrators, but given current events, I’m going to rate that as likely true.
Plans for the rally already include efforts to organize sympathetic truckers and loggers to disrupt highway traffic in and out of Salem. Additionally, many of the comments supporting this rally are problematic. “Lock n load, and light em up!!” … “By Bullet or Ballot” …
It’s way too early to know whether this hastily improvised event is going to pan out at all, but the initial reaction is disturbing to say the least.
EDIT: The rally organizer, John Parker, Jr., now claims that at least some of the errant Senators intend to return to the capitol on the 27th for the rally, but that they will not be participating in government. The affiliated militias have committed that they will not permit the Oregon State Police to seize “their Senators”. If this happens as described, it will be a direct, armed confrontation between rogue Senators and the militia versus the Oregon government and State Police.
Update 2: Lest you think Boquist is the only one with dangerous rhetoric here, reports indicate that Tim Knopp and Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr. have done their part to fan the flames, describing the State Police’s lawful order as “unAmerican”, a “threat”, and the action of a “dictatorship”. There are real chances that this is going to get worse before it gets better, including the very significant risk of … well, at this point, I’m not sure it’s fair to call it stochastic terrorism; these Senators know exactly who is listening.
Update 3: So, for awhile, militia supporter and general agitator John Parker, Jr. has claimed that he’s been in personal communication with an unnamed Republican Senator. Now, there’s an attempt to move the rally date up to this Saturday (the 22nd), plus a second protest at the capitol on the original date of the 27th. To encourage the accelerated calendar, Parker has finally name-dropped his contact: Senator Dallas Heard. Followup comments suggest that Heard may have realized that he’s stirred the pot a little too vigorously, and is trying to back Parker down. At the very least, the self-exiled Republicans apparently don’t plan to attend in person now, “fear[ing] a riot”. Or, perhaps, they’re fearing the riot police?
Update 4: This is probably my last update on this story for today. Based on available information, it seems like that Senator Heard realized he was encouraging potentially violent action and backed down, while encouraging Parker and the militia to try to stage a peaceful rally this weekend — when the capitol would be empty and nothing important would be going on. Parker seems to have realized he got played, and has been trying to hand off organization of the event to … well, anyone else. Meanwhile, Kate Gillem, Communications Director for the Oregon Senate Minority, issued a statement to Oregon Live that the Republican Senators were “not interested” in the assistance of the militias. Officially, anyway, I guess. So, the political standoff continues, but the odds of an armed standoff have likely lengthened somewhat. Quite a few of the militia enthusiasts are nonplussed by the seeming betrayal from their would-be allies.
However, the broader story isn’t done. The Republicans are still in exile. Boquist hasn’t walked back his open death threats to the Oregon State Police. The area militia groups are still rowdy and spoiling for action. I don’t expect much turnout at the capitol tomorrow or Sunday, but it’s likely that there will be a handful of armed wackos there. A larger pro-militia protest next weekend remains possible. And, of course, it only takes one…
I have no idea what the Republicans envision as the endgame here. At this point, presumably, they stay in Idaho until June 30, when the session ends. Which means intentionally refusing to pass a budget (there’s a continuing resolution, so no shutdown) and torpedoing a bunch of other well-regarded and sometimes even bipartisan bills. Presumably then everyone just goes home and Boquist hopes the FBI isn’t in an arresty mood? If one or more of the Republicans attempt to return before the 30th for any reason other than capitulation, the odds of direct confrontation go back up, I think.
I may or may not be able to watch this closely over the weekend, but I’ll try to publish something further on Monday if the situation warrants.