Town Hall

Sen. Jeff Merkley responds to an audience member's question at the online Columbia County town hall held Wednesday morning, July 29.

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Sen. Jeff Merkley (D–Oregon) said the U.S. Senate is working on multiple priorities, from the fourth coronavirus emergency relief bill to police brutality to voter suppression to extending unemployment benefits, all topics Merkley discussed with Columbia County residents during an electronic town hall.

Merkley held the meeting from his Washington, D.C. office Wednesday morning, July 29.

COVID-19 relief

Regarding the Coronavirus emergency relief bill, Merkley said there are two versions, one that the House of Representatives passed two months ago, which the U.S. Senate has not yet acted on, and one that the senate majority released yesterday, which Merkley said was done without bi-partisan negotiation and which looks very different from the one proposed by the House.

According to Merkley, the Senate Bill allocates $3 billion towards helping citizens with their rent or mortgage in order to avoid eviction, while the House Bill allocates $175 billion. Merkley also said the House Bill supports programs  such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), while the Senate Bill does not. Merkely said the Senate Bill also does not support education.

“What I’m portraying here is a vast different," Merkley said. "We’ve got a lot of work to do. Hoping to have a bill through senate by end of next week but will require intense negotiations. These are really exceptional, challenging times.”

Fed troops in Portland

Merkley also addressed paramilitary tactics being carried out against protestors in Portland and said the troops, who are almost always unidentified, another unlawful tactic, according to Merkley, would be removed by Thursday, July 30.

Tear gas, pepper spray, flash bang grenades, and rubber bullets aimed at close range to the heads of individuals have all been tactics the troops have used against peaceful protestors, Merkley said.

“You don’t shoot people with impact munitions, rubber bullets, you don’t aim at their heads,” Merkley said. “An announcement that these federal forces will be leaving the area by tomorrow, they will be out of Oregon. We spent much of last week highlighting police tactics and their impropriety.”

Audience engagement

Several residents from Columbia County asked questions about unemployment benefits, rental relief, police brutality, and COVID-19 precautions.

Merkley responded to one resident’s question regarding unemployment benefits saying that the Senate is trying to extend unemployment insurance support at $600 a week, which is now set to expire on July 31, and is trying to keep the moratorium on evictions in place.

The unemployment insurance extension bill would allow for an additional 13 weeks of federally funded unemployment benefits for individuals who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits, according to an information page on Merkley’s website.

“Next week we’ll know if we’re good on that or not,” Merkley said.

Diane Benson, a homecare worker who lives in Clatskanie, asked about the federal government’s role in curtailing the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings such as prisons. Benson said one of her patients has a son who was her primary caregiver but is now incarcerated.

“Her son is one of many others that qualify under new ruling of release of inmates who are not violent." Benson told Merkley. "What is going on in that area as far as reduction of transmission of virus in prisons?”

Benson asked if her patient’s son would qualify to be released.

“The conversation on who’s released isn’t a federal conversation," Merkley responded. "I don’t have much to share on how that is going or how they’ve revised standards to reduce contagion."

One resident from Scappoose, who said she had not yet received unemployment benefits, asked about what she could do to receive them.

Merkley said that in his office, representatives can call the state unemployment office and say they have a constituent who has not yet received their unemployment benefits, and sometimes the constituent will receive their benefits right away.

Merkley noted he has heard firsthand accounts of individuals receiving unemployment benefits after months without them and the relief they feel after being able to catch up on all expenses. Merkley said extending unemployment benefits is one of the major priorities he has been working with the state on.

“I certainly hope we can extend the $600,” Merkley said.

To close out the Town Hall, Merkley shared his thoughts on the state of democracy in the United States.

“How do we make our republic function as government by and for the people? It has become profoundly different. Passing a bill on good housing policy now takes a supermajority. [We’ve got] lots of work to do to put our nation back on track,” Merkley said.

Merkley's July 29 town hall was his 36th of the year.

The following is additional details requested by The Chronicle concerning legislation discussed at the Columbia County town hall.

GOP BILL Renter assistance

$3.3 billion total

  • $2.2 billion in Section 8 vouchers
  • $1 billion to public housing authorities in a vague, unclear channel

HOUSE BILL Renter assistance

  • $75 billion for homeowners’ assistance
  • $100 billion for a rental assistance fund to capture folks that are outside of typical support systems
  • Additional funding in CCDBG and ESG grants.

The Credit Report and Eviction Defense in Turbulent (CREDIT) Emergencies Act of 2020 would prevent or erase unpaid rent, property evictions, or unpaid judgements that occur during the coronavirus pandemic from negatively impacting Americans’ credit scores.

The Emergency Water and Energy is a Human Right Act would protect Americans’ access to electricity, running water, and other critical utilities during the crisis by barring any utilities that receive federal support in the next round of relief funding from shutting off power or water to consumers.

Additionally, the bill would require providers to reconnect households that have been disconnected during the pandemic and allocate $1.5 billion in grants to assist low-income households paying a high proportion of household income for drinking water and wastewater service.

Preventing Authoritarian Policing Tactics on America’s Streets Act would block the Trump administration from deploying federal forces as a shadowy paramilitary against Americans:

  • Require individual and agency identification on uniforms of officers and prevent unmarked vehicles from being used in arrests.
  • Limit federal agents’ crowd control activities to federal property and its immediate vicinity, unless their presence is specifically requested by both the mayor and governor.
  • Require disclosure on an agency website within 24 hours of deployments specifying the number of personnel and purposes of deployment.
  • Make arrests in violation of these rules unlawful.

For more information, contact Sen. Merkley's office by calling 503-326-3386, or visit https://www.merkley.senate.gov/connect/office-locations

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