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House rule changes could help Republicans

SALEM - As Democrats prepare to take control of the Oregon House for the first time in 16 years, they're proposing a raft of rule changes, many of which could benefit Republicans.

In the 2005 session, Republican leaders kept a tight rein on bills, burying many in committees and not allowing floor votes on others. Bills that had sailed through the Senate - from allowing civil unions to expanding Oregon's prescription drug discount program - regularly died in the House.

This time around, Democrats are pledging more openness, in an effort to crack down on the bitter partisanship that has often paralyzed the chamber in past sessions. They've proposed allowing each member, regardless of party, to designate two bills per session for "priority consideration" by the House. As long as the bills in question have at least two sponsors from each party, they're guaranteed at least a public hearing and a work session.

Speaker-elect Jeff Merkley termed the new rule "an experiment."

"We are not sure that anyone has tried this anywhere in the country," Merkley said. "We have not been able to find evidence of that. It may work, it may be useful, or it may not work."

Rep. Sal Esquivel, a Medford Republican, and Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat, sent letters to the House leadership in August encouraging such rule changes in hopes of ending what they saw as increasingly hostile partisan politics in Salem.

If passed, the new rules could open the door for bills unlikely to find favor with the current leadership, like those on abortion, cost containments at the Department of Human Services or cutting the corporate gains tax, to at least get a hearing at the committee level.

The move also recognizes the voters' oft-stated desire for bipartisanship in Salem and acknowledges that many legislators were upset over feeling like the nitty-gritty of the 2005 session was worked out by a handful of leaders behind closed doors.

Democrats also hold just a razor-thin majority in the chamber, and will need to team with Republicans to pass some of their pet proposals, including a raise in the cigarette tax to pay for an expansion of children's health care proposals.

And there's always the possibility that after future elections, Democrats could find themselves in the minority again, and they'd be the beneficiaries of the new proposals.

Asked why Republicans can support the proposals now that they are in the minority, but made no similar move while they were in charge, House Republican Leader Wayne Scott was noncommittal, saying, "That's a good question that I can't answer for you directly, in that it is history, and I don't have that history. But I can tell you that I don't think that they don't give advantages one way or the other, whether you are in the minority or the majority."

Other rules changes include:

A majority of 31 members will be allowed to bring a bill to the floor for consideration. Any changes to that would have to be approved by a "supermajority" - or 40 representatives.

Any member can sign on as a sponsor of a bill, without having to receive permission from a bill's chief sponsor before doing so.

House members are expected to vote on the rule changes soon after the session begins next Monday.

Some lawmakers have expressed doubt that the new rules will make much difference. State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said he doubts that many ideas not specifically outlined on the agenda House Democrats have presented will actually make it onto the floor.

But Scott struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday at a press conference with Merkley and the incoming House Majority Leader Dave Hunt, D-Milwaukie, saying that House Republicans had been frequently consulted about the rule changes.

"We are not trying to start the session as adversaries," Scott said. "We will have our differences throughout the process, but I think we are off to a great start."