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  A possible COVID-19 exposure in the chamber   Republicans offered demands for ending slow-down tactics  

Story by Dirk VanderHart (OPB) and Lauren Dake (OPB) - Story Source
Published on Wednesday March 31, 2021 - 11:31 PM

News of the possible exposure came the same day Republicans offered a list of demands for ending slow-down tactics in the chamber.

Oregon House Republicans who have been slowing down the legislative process with a constitutional roadblock presented a series of demands Monday for returning to more normal activity. But their list was nearly immediately pushed aside by a more pressing hindrance: a possible COVID-19 exposure in the chamber.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said Monday she was delaying all action in the House until March 29 at the earliest, after someone who had been in the chamber last week tested positive for the coronavirus.

"I cannot comment on who," Kotek told reporters. "All I can say is someone who was interacting on the House floor last week has tested positive." It was not clear Monday afternoon whether the individual was a lawmaker or staffer in the Capitol.

The news added additional complexity to a session that has already seen plenty of turmoil in the House. Republicans for weeks have been requiring all bills be read in full before a final vote, a strategy that has led to lawmakers spending long hours together in the chamber — and led some to worry about catching the coronavirus.

In the first sure sign of what it might take to end that standoff, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan sent a letter to Kotek Monday laying out, in sometimes cutting terms, what it would take to restore the pace of the legislative session.

"As long as the building is closed to the public and deeply controversial legislation continues to be fast-tracked in committees, we will continue to depend on the Constitution, to remind the supermajority we should not operate like it's business as usual while the public is shut out," Drazan wrote.

In years past, the constitutional rule that bills be read in full before passage has often been an afterthought, with both parties agreeing to skip bill reading. But the consent of two-thirds of members is required to waive the rule, and Republicans have used it increasingly since 2016 to slow the agenda of the majority Democrats and to attempt to gain more say in legislation.

Kotek on Monday called the move a "pseudo-walkout" that only serves to derail the session.

"I'm frustrated this is becoming normalized behavior," she said.

Demands that Drazan listed in her letter include: Democrats killing "divisive or controversial" proposals, only moving bills that have bipartisan support, and giving more consideration to her members' amendments. Drazan is also requesting that Kotek not schedule overly long floor sessions and ensure that both opponents and supporters of bills get equal time to testify in committee.

"This is a year for healing, in our state and nation; a time to come together," the letter said. "It is not a time for deeply divisive, partisan legislation while the public is locked out of the building."

While bill reading is not a new tactic, it brings another wrinkle in the age of COVID-19.

As she did last year, Kotek has responded to the Republican slow down by signaling she'll require lawmakers to appear on the House floor for longer periods of time. As of Monday morning, she had scheduled representatives to spend roughly 19 hours in session this week.

She later canceled all of those sessions, after a person who interacted with members of the House last week tested positive for COVID-19. House floor sessions have now been delayed until at least March 29.