Before Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley took questions from the audience at the Madras Performing Arts Center on Jan. 4, he sat down with the Pioneer and Warm Springs radio station KWSO for a few minutes.
He also had a closed-door session with local elected officials.
When asked how he balances rural and urban issues, he said, “That’s part of the value of going to every county ever year.”
He meets with the local officials who choose to attend in each county, and he said he takes on their issues.
It’s meant everything from passing legislation that lets farm trucks go across state lines to saving rural post offices.
“The issues that people raise, these don’t tend to be D(emocratic) or R(epublican) issues,” Merkley said.
Irrigation is another area he has worked on, helping to get funds for piping that help save water and put it back in the Deschutes River.
“That’s the value of coming out here” and listening to the community, he said.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Merkley said he is “really able to help out with ag.”
He pushes for “agricultural research service.” He said he listens to the farmers about the challenges they face and advocates for funding.
The topic of water safety continues to loom large in Warm Springs.
“I tried to get priorities for every corner of the state incorporated in (the 2020 spending) bill,” Merkley said.
“Another issue that had come up was the Warm Springs water system … Working with Sen. Wyden, we’ve crafted a bill to help with water projects on tribal reservations.”
He said other federal funds had already been dedicated, as well.
In terms of divisions in the Senate, Merkley said, “You can think of this as the Senate operating on two tiers.”
He said there’s lots of bipartisan work on modest projects. He’s worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on allowing hemp farming, as well as Sen. Rand Paul and Wyden.
“We got legalization for any state that gives it the green light,” he said.
“We’re actually working with Mitch McConnell to save our CCCs,” he said, talking about the Civilian Conservation Corps.
He said those are just a couple of examples of many projects he’s worked on across the aisle.
At the same time, he said it’s very hard to get anything done on other issues, particularly those that are politicized by the presidential campaign.
“When it comes to the issues that become points of federal competition, such as immigration, the division is very deep,” he said.
Merkley made headlines at the end of 2018 when he became the first member of Congress to visit a detention center at the U.S.-Mexico border and reported that children were being separated from their parents, who were seeking asylum in the U.S. That was just a few weeks before he came to Madras in January 2019.
“So just after I was here, we were able to shut down the big child prison down in the desert,” he said, referring to the Tornillo facility in Texas, as well as the Homestead facility, which was scheduled to hold about 2,500 children.
He said the basic issue is treating people with respect and decency.
“And there’s still a strategy of the (Trump) administration to inflict trauma,” he said. “It’s completely wrong. We must stand up and say, ‘Not here. Not on our land, not with our money.'” He said people need to work together to make the asylum process work effectively.
He was also asked about Congressional efforts to understand missing and murdered Native American women. According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, homicide is the third-leading cause of death for Native American women between the ages of 10 and 24 and the fifth-leading cause among those between 25 and 34.
Merkley co-sponsored a bill “specifically to focus on missing and murdered women in Indian Country,” he said. The bill, called Savanna’s Act, was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs, which has voted to give a report to the full Senate.
Merkley said the bill would dedicate resources to track stories of missing and murdered Native American women and understand the situation better.