U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said he is hopeful about the future under the Biden administration but warned that many good ideas still face Republican obstruction.
The Oregon Democrat, meeting virtually with Clatsop County constituents Wednesday in his 443rd town hall since joining the U.S. Senate, celebrated the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently passed by Congress, which he said rebuilds the economy from the ground up, instead of Wall Street down.
Merkley detailed his efforts to improve elections through the For the People Act, which he introduced with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
The bill, a companion to legislation passed by the U.S. House, is a response to state-level attempts to crack down on alleged voter fraud. It would address voter suppression, so-called “dark money” behind campaigns and gerrymandering — or drawing electoral districts for partisan advantage. It would make all political contributions over $10,000 subject to public disclosure, institute automatic voter registration, expand mail-in voting and ban states from what Democrats have called purging tactics against eligible voters.
Republicans have criticized the bill as a power grab by Democrats that would increase the potential for voter fraud. The bill passed the House but is not expected to gather the 60 votes necessary in the Senate to avoid a filibuster led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
“The Senate is rigged right now, so that the priorities for the powerful require a simple majority, and the priorities for ordinary families — including the protection of democracy, health care, housing, education, jobs, environmental policy, labor policy, equality of opportunity policy — all of those require a supermajority,” Merkley said. “That should just be outrageous. Why should there be a fast lane for the privileged and powerful, and there’s a slow lane where McConnell has a veto over everything?”
Katrina Gasser, a business and community liaison at Tongue Point Job Corps Center, thanked Merkley for his efforts with other Oregon leaders to rescind the elimination of staff houses on campus. Backers of Tongue Point had warned that families at the center could be thrust into a tight housing market.
“There’s 15 families here who are just breathing significant sighs of relief,” Gasser said.
Gasser said she is hopeful the Biden administration will end a previous Department of Labor shift away from providing staff housing at job corps centers around the U.S. She pushed Merkley to keep trying to overturn the proposed elimination of and cuts to several trades at Tongue Point.
“The administration knows I’m going to be pushing them very hard not to cut these programs,” Merkley said. “I feel like there are plenty of folks out there who would really benefit from being able to participate in these programs. They probably need to be enlarged, not shrunk.”
Merkley detailed his efforts to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to include West Coast seafood as part of federal commodity purchases. He and other West Coast senators and representatives sent a letter earlier this month to Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, outlining the dire situation for seafood demand with so many restaurants closed because of the coronavirus.
“We’re pushing for them to do this,” Merkley said. “It makes sense. And the seafood’s been hit so hard, because Americans eat a lot more seafood at restaurants than at home.”
Asked about efforts to increase affordable housing, Merkley said many of the concerns he’s raised are priorities shared by the Biden administration and addressed in his proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. The American Jobs Plan would invest $213 billion to build, preserve and retrofit affordable housing.
“I’m very optimistic about this administration,” Merkley said. “But we have to pass the infrastructure bill to make this happen, and I am worried about that.
“What I saw in the first years of the Obama administration was a philosophy by the minority leader, Mitch McConnell. His philosophy was, ‘If I can obstruct and delay things, and things don’t get better, then people will vote for my team, and I’ll be majority leader instead of minority leader.’
“And I thought that was very, very cynical, because, really, a republic only works if people come together and say, ‘We want to solve problems.’”