Merkley vows push for more local support amid virus

In a virtual town hall Tuesday with Clatsop County constituents, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley vowed to fight for more local support in the next round of federal coronavirus relief legislation.

The Senate reconvenes Monday and faces an epic political battle over relief money.

The Democrat-led House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act more than two months ago. The $3.4 trillion legislation includes expanded unemployment payments until early next year, another $1,200 stimulus check per person including dependents and more than $1 trillion in aid to states and cities.

The bill has been blocked from the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has called it a “liberal wish list.” Merkley equated McConnell’s blockage of the bill with Republican leadership in Washington, D.C., allowing states to struggle on their own.

“When we reconvene next week, I’ll be doing everything I can as before to try to get that bill to the floor,” the Oregon Democrat said of the HEROES Act.

The bill would put an estimated $6 billion in the hands of Oregon, Merkley said, and another $3 billion in the hands of local governments “that help sustain the fundamental programs to get us to the other side of this.”

Merkley waxed hopeful that after two weeks back home in their states hard-hit by the coronavirus, Republican leaders will return with a sense of urgency to pass more relief — maybe not to the level that Democrats want, but more than is being offered.

“I think that the odds have increased,” he said of a compromise. “The reason they’ve increased is not good. That is the surge of the contagion in so many Southern states.”

Merkley has asked Congress to spend $2 billion in coronavirus relief on buying American seafood products. The seafood industry received $300 million from the first $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed in March, but the senator has said that’s not enough for an industry that saw demand plummet with government restrictions on restaurants.

His proposal will target the types of fish usually sold at restaurants. In addition to the seafood purchases, his idea would pump $1.5 billion into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for targeted relief to damaged fisheries across the country.

Merkley said it will be difficult for coastal states with fisheries to get inland states to buy in to the proposal, but that they could combine similar ideas with other food sources.

Asked about protests around the country over police misconduct, Merkley said community leaders need to continue to support the right to peacefully demonstrate, while emphasizing the unacceptability of destructive acts.

“We have both rights and responsibilities as citizens,” he said. “We have the right to assemble. We have the right to protest. That’s essential in a republic. But we have no right to start injuring people and destroying property.”

Merkley closed by saying that the United States is in an extraordinary time.

“This is like living through a novel, an apocalyptic novel or movie, with the pandemic, with the implosion, with the much-needed conversation about discrimination and public safety quality,” he said. “But let’s use this to know that we have an opportunity that comes from these conversations in this moment to develop a better system, better laws.”