Local Republican Lawmakers Say Return of In-Person Session Draws Hope for Bipartisanship


Late last month, Southwest Washington legislators spoke of a desire for bipartisan collaboration in ways the previous two sessions fell short. The 105-day 2023 legislative session began on Jan. 9.

Twentieth District Reps. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, and Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, joined House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, in a meeting with The Chronicle on Jan. 20 to outline legislative priorities for the session. 

“We’re two weeks into the session and no one hates each other yet, no one hates anyone else yet, which is a pretty long record,” Wilcox said with a laugh.

“Yeah we’re doing better than normal,” Braun added.

Though two weeks have since passed, the first in-person session in two years has already seen some bipartisan legislation. Whether that’s representative of a changing political tide or coincidence, the Republican lawmakers all felt the ability to work with colleagues beyond Zoom has increased both the efficiency of work and ability to compromise.

“Folks in the 20th District expect to focus on the issues that mean most to them and impact their lives on a daily basis,” Abbarno said, listing fuel prices, health care and education. “They don’t want to hear the fighting on the floor. They don’t want to hear fighting in the press. It has been nice to be in person and look my colleagues in the eye for the first time and be able to really talk to them about issues that we have in common.”

Abbarno, though in his sophomore term, took office the first time in January 2021 ahead of the state’s first remote session. 

While final actions are yet to be determined, Braun mentioned legislation he may support from both parties on workforce problems in law enforcement, other public safety issues and housing. 

“That’s not to say we don't have disagreements. We have some serious disagreements, and there's gonna be significant debate,” said Braun, the Senate Minority Leader. “But it does definitely feel different to me so far.”

Wilcox outlined four things he felt were the major elements of lawmaking. Those are ideology, playing for the team you’re on, intellect and empathy, he said. 

“It just seems to me that if you can’t talk to people, if you have no face-to-face contact, if you don’t have a relationship that you have invested in and care about, the two things that matter the most on that screen are, ‘What team are you on?’ and another way of seeing what team you’re on, ‘What’s your ideology?’” Wilcox said. “And those are the two least valuable ways to do legislation. They’re the things that isolate you the most. When you’re face-to-face, it’s impossible, unless you’re missing something, to not have some level of empathy.” 

Only time will tell whether the Republicans’ hopes are valid, but the early weeks of the session have seen some evidence. On Jan. 25, the first Republican bill of the session was passed unanimously in the House.

Sponsored by Kennewick Republican Rep. April Connors, the measure would add an exemption to the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act for an up to three-month agreement between buyers and sellers allowing sellers to continue living in or renting the property.

House Bill 1401, too, has seen bipartisan support on a housing issue. Sponsored by 11 Republicans and four Democrats, the bill proposes simplifying the standardized housing permit process and adding more flexibility to borders of municipalities and urban growth areas.

According to reporting by The Seattle Times this week, legislators from both parties joined Gov. Jay Inslee to pledge support for laws to improve traffic safety, especially through increased support for recruiting law enforcement officers to patrol roads.

Current proposals in this realm include lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit and increased violation enforcement in work zones, the Times reported. Proposals to amend rules for right turns on red lights and jaywalking are also in the mix.

Emergency powers reform, for now, is one area Democrats still need to overcome the team mentality, Braun said. Politically, it is not top of mind as “folks get on with their lives” from the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, but he believes “virtually every Democrat” thinks the Legislature should have a larger role in states of emergency. 

At this time, he said, “we have to give them some space so they can come to the table and want to negotiate, work on a real solution. … It’s going to take a little while for feelings to die down.”

Ultimately, Braun said, because the governor position may not always be held by the same party, it will be in everyone’s best interest to adopt reforms to emergency powers to prevent their abuse by either Republicans or Democrats.