Oregon Climate Walkout Left Republicans in Hiding, Statehouse in Disarray

SALEM, Ore. — One by one, Oregon’s 11 Senate Republicans fled their state with little more than spare underwear and their passports. They disappeared into Idaho cabins and motels with canned goods and at least one burner phone. They parked borrowed cars outside hideaways to throw off anyone on their trails.

Democrats swiftly sent state troopers after their missing colleagues. They shared outlaw posters on the internet, pleading to the public for help. “Wanted: fugitives from justice (and their jobs!),” the signs read, accompanied by a lineup of photographs of the Republicans. “Have you seen these people?”

So it went in Oregon over the past week as a battle over a climate-change bill plunged the state’s capital into disarray, sending Republicans escaping across state lines and leaving Democrats, who usually control Salem, paralyzed, without enough lawmakers present to pass the climate bill — or anything else.

It was only the latest example of how nasty the political discourse has grown across the nation at a point when either Republicans or Democrats dominate the conversation in nearly every state capitol. Divided control — and compromise — is rarely seen.

“The chaos and divisiveness of Washington, D.C., is bleeding over into the states,” Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said from her office this week. What happened in Oregon was a terrible indicator of what might be ahead for many states, she said, adding that the democratic process was at risk if agendas could be shut down by one party simply leaving. The governor has ordered the State Police to find and return the Republicans.

The tumult in this state also revealed the depth of emotions around climate-change laws, exposing a larger, growing divide between urban and rural factions — in Oregon and beyond.

State Senator Tim Knopp, one of the Republicans who fled the capital, described the walkout as a smart political move, necessary to make rural voices heard at a time when urban voters tend to overpower them. “I think it’s a victory for our constituents,” he said, speaking by telephone this week from a lakeside hide-out in a location he declined to reveal. (He texted photos of the sunset over the cabin’s placid waters as proof of the general environs.)

The climate-change bill that set off Oregon’s fight would impose a market-based approach, commonly known as cap-and-trade, to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The bill, backed by Democrats, would require major polluters to buy credits for every ton of greenhouse gas they produced, and over time, the state would make fewer credits available, with the goal of forcing companies to pollute less.

Economists have long cited these policies as a cost-effective way to tackle climate change. But they have been a tough sell in statehouses; in Washington State, ballot initiatives on the issue have failed twice. While 10 states in the Northeast have set up their own regional cap-and-trade program, it affects only electric power plants.

Oregon’s bill would go further, regulating a broad range of industries and putting the state in line with an approach used in California.

Critics of the bill say it would do little to curb global emissions while exacting significant pain on rural energy consumers. Senate Republicans said it would raise energy costs and disproportionately affect rural constituents in logging and farming industries.

Oregon accounts for a tiny slice — 0.14 percent — of global emissions. A forecast from the state’s legislative revenue office predicted the measure would force a 23-cent-a-gallon hike by 2021 and more increases in the years that follow. By 2050, the forecast said, Oregon residents would be paying 3 additional dollars a gallon.

Oregon, like the rest of the nation, has long been divided along urban and rural lines. But those divisions have deepened significantly in recent decades. Portland and other metropolitan areas have expanded and their residents have become increasingly Democratic, while Oregon’s rural areas have struggled to retain residents and have become more Republican.

In the last half century, money, jobs and political power have flowed to the Portland area, which has grown to the point where it makes up 60 percent of the state’s population. At the same time, rural Oregon, centered around agriculture and timber cutting, has struggled.

Democrats now control much of state government — the governor’s seat and both chambers of the Legislature — and the climate bill’s prospects had looked bright.

But in recent months, questions about the climate bill’s effects on rural residents had loomed. Bill Kerr, 58, a union leader and employee at an Oregon paper factory, said he feared the bill might drive logging operations and factories out of the state.

Democrats were “asking this state to jump on a sword,” with few benefits to heal the wound, Mr. Kerr, a Republican, said.

Democrats said they had tried to add provisions that might make the bill more palatable in rural areas, including rebates to poor and middle-class families to help them defray costs.

But Republicans said they were unsatisfied. And last week, with a vote on the bill looking imminent, they left, denying Democrats the quorum they needed.

In the days that followed, the statehouse became a battleground, with climate activists and timber workers both appearing on the steps of the white stone Capitol.

The bill’s opponents circled the building in logging trucks, horns blaring.

Angered by Democrats’ calls for the police to track down the missing Republicans, a local militia group called the Oregon III% vowed to provide security “for those Senators in need.”

At one point, the State Police, citing a “credible threat” related to militia, shut down the building.

When it reopened this week, Democrats gaveled in alone. And on Tuesday, with the Republicans still missing, Democratic leaders stunned many by announcing that they did not believe that their own party had the votes to pass the bill. Amid all the chaos, Democratic support had eroded, they indicated, urging the Republicans to come back and vote on other matters, like budget bills and a paid family leave measure. More than 100 bills had stalled in the impasse, including spending measures needed to fund state government.

Climate activists huddled in the Senate lobby, reeling from the news.

“My fear is that this isn’t just about climate change,” said Summer Dean, 22, a recent graduate from Portland State University, who had been lobbying for the bill for three years. “This is about a fault in our democracy that could spread in other states as well.”

State Representative Shelly Boshart Davis, a first-term Republican, said the walkout “truly was more than just cap-and-trade.”

Ms. Boshart Davis, a grass seed and hazelnut farmer, noted that threat of the climate bill had led thousands of people to join a Facebook group in opposition.

“This grass-roots has been activated,” she said. “These hardworking everyday Oregonians all of a sudden are saying: ‘Wait a second, our livelihoods are at stake.’”

With the legislative session set to end Sunday at midnight, there were signs of movement.

On Friday morning, facing mounting pressure from Democrats, Herman Baertschiger Jr., the Senate Republican leader, emerged from an Idaho hideaway.

Sitting at a conference table surrounded by reporters, he said that his caucus had accomplished its goal, and would now come out of hiding. “Our mission of walking out of this building was to kill cap-and-trade,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”

But as the Republicans prepared to come back to work at the State Capitol on Saturday, it was not at all clear that the measure was dead.

In her office, the governor acknowledged that the climate bill would not pass by Sunday. But it could “certainly” come up in a special session, Ms. Brown said. “I’m not willing to say this fight is over.”