Merkley answers questions at Sutherlin town hall meeting

SUTHERLIN — In his first town hall meeting of the new year, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, told Douglas County residents he would be a fair juror at a Senate trial on President Donald Trump’s impeachment by the House.

About 100 people attended the town hall meeting in the Sutherlin High School gym Thursday morning.

Merkley said the important thing for the Senate trial is that both prosecution and defense be able to call their witnesses and that those subpoenaed show up to testify. And he said the senators need to consider how they’d vote if the president was a member of the opposite party.

“I think every senator across America right now needs to double down their commitment to be impartial. This is a moment that demands country above party,” he said.

The first question of the morning, asked by a student, was what Merkley is doing to ensure bipartisanship continues in the country.

Merkley said it’s natural for people with common concerns to group together, but suggested things have gone too far.

“The division has gone way, way beyond just reflecting some differences in approach to almost a tribal animosity, and that really is destructive,” Merkley said.

But he also said a lot of bipartisan work gets done, and it doesn’t get nearly as much publicity.

One bipartisan victory he touted was the Oregon, Idaho and Montana senators working together to secure an extension of Secure Rural Schools funding that is expected to bring about $8.5 million to Douglas County’s budget this fiscal year.

He also cited work with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on agricultural hemp and the restoration of Civilian Conservation Corps programs like the Wolf Creek Job Corps.

“You can pick almost any of the most conservative senators in America and I’ve worked with them on something,” he said.

In response to a woman who asked why Republican senators are supporting Trump, Merkley noted the president campaigned on fighting for working families, challenging China’s unfair trade practices, and reducing drug prices — all issues Merkley said he agreed with him about at that time. Merkley said he wanted to work with the president on drug price gouging but never got a call back from the White House, which he said dropped its initiative.

He said he is concerned about some of the president’s behavior, and he said privately some Republican senators admit they are as well. He didn’t elaborate.

Merkley is also concerned about court decisions on gerrymandering, voter suppression and the Citizens United decision that allows billionaires to spend money on campaigns. He cited Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for all citizens having an equal voice.

“He said if you don’t have power equally distributed among the voters, then what you end up with are laws for the powerful not laws for the people,” he said.

He said that’s how America ended up with a tax bill in 2017 that he said sent about $2 trillion almost entirely to the richest Americans.

“What would have happened if we had spent $2 trillion on housing and health care and education and infrastructure and living wage jobs in America? That would be a foundation that would help families thrive in our nation rather than increasing the income and wealth disparity,” he said.

In response to a question about climate change, he said rural economies are particularly hard hit. There’s less water for farmers and ranchers, trout and salmon streams are growing smaller and warmer, forest fires are increasing.

“We have to find strategies to address the present pollution that support and strengthen our rural economies, not hurt them because I think that’s been a major kind of blockade in having a healthy conversation about what we’re facing,” he said.

Merkley also presented a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol to Pat and Gwen Lynch of the Friends of the Sutherlin Library for their efforts in keeping that library open after the countywide library system closed down.