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Political musical chairs for Oregon’s congressional delegation in 2023

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By Gary A. Warner
Oregon Capital Bureau

The 2022 elections created something of a jumble for Oregon’s delegation to D.C.

The powerful became more powerful, while everyone else saw their status thrown into the political spin cycle for at least two years.

Democrats held the Senate 51-49, including the one Oregon seat on the ballot. Despite some post-election machinations over the true head count of the Democratic majority, Oregon’s two veteran members of the upper chamber moved up even further in the ranks of the 100 senators.

Republicans flipped the House, ending close to the hair-thin 222-213 majority Democrats hold in 2022.

A GOP upset in Oregon squeezed off Democrats’ longshot hopes of holding the chamber. A second-term member who had been Oregon’s only Republican representative has a chance to pick up a chairman’s gavel as two top Democrats slide into the minority party status. Two Democratic newcomers from Oregon are at the bottom of seniority and with the party out of power.

Oregon senators retain political pull

Democrats came out of the 2022 elections with a 51-49 majority. U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema immediately fogged the partisan count by announcing she was leaving the Democratic party to become an independent. But Sinema will join with Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine as “independents” who caucus with Democrats for the purpose of choosing a majority party and committee chairs. 

The Democrats’ ability to hold onto the Senate means that Oregon’s two senators will return to Washington knowing they are in the majority, with their seniority giving them positions to wield gavels as chairs of key committees. Sen. Ron Wyden will be the chair of the influential Finance Committee. Jeff Merkley can retain two key environmental-oriented subcommittee chairmanships.

With senators serving six-year terms, both will have a two-year stretch in which they can focus on policy instead of politics before the 2024 presidential election. Neither will be on the ballot that year alongside a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch or any other combination of candidates vying for the White House.

Merkley’s seat isn’t up for re-election again until 2026, while Wyden’s seat doesn’t come back to the ballot until 2028.

Gavels gone in the House

It’s the opposite in the House. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, who is the dean of the Oregon delegation, will have to hand over his gavel as chair of the Trade Subcommittee of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, most likely to Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Nebraska, who was ranking Republican.

Smith is a member of the far right Tea Party Caucus and was among House members who backed an effort by Trump supporters to challenge the Pennsylvania election outcome.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, has been in Congress for a decade and served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services. She too will have to be content as “ranking minority member” for at least the next two years.

With the unusual amount of election upheaval, sophomore Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, now has the third longest tenure in the delegation. The internal GOP debate over whether current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, will become House Speaker will shape committee assignments.

Barring some major shuffling, the flip in party control would create an opening for Bentz to move from ranking member to chair of the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, areas of major interest to his sprawling rural 2nd Congressional District.

Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Happy Valley, will be a first-term lawmaker, but has the advantage — or disadvantage — of being a high-profile protégé of the GOP’s third-ranking House member, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. 

Stefanik backed Chavez-DeRemer before the Oregon GOP primary and ensured that Republican money went to the race. Recently, Stefanik has been a leading voice in congressional leadership advocating for Republicans to clear the presidential primary field for another run by Trump in 2024.

Backers of the defeated Democrat, Terrebonne attorney Jaime McLeod-Skinner, have complained that top House leaders steered money to other races, allowing the GOP to win the formerly Democratic seat by 2% of the vote. She’s been encouraged by supporters to get into the 2024 primary to take another shot at Chavez-DeRemer.

Progressive and centrist elements in the Democratic Party have continued to debate the impact of McLeod-Skinner’s successful run to the left of U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, who lost the May primary.

Progressives have been especially critical of blaming the loss on McLeod-Skinner’s challenge of Schrader that have come in publications from west of the Mississippi.

“Regardless of why this happened, the reality is that Republicans and Democrats will leverage this against progressives,” Christopher McKnight Nichols, a history professor at Ohio State University, wrote of the race in the HuffPost political website. “Both moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Pacific Northwest looking to this race now have ammunition to argue that progressives can’t win in the way that they purport.”

At the bottom of the congressional pecking order for the moment are two Democratic first-termers, Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Springfield, and Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego.

As brand new members serving with the minority party, they’re near the end of the line for committee assignments and other perks that help lawmakers make a quick splash in Washington before their first re-election campaigns in two years.

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