U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says he thinks the chances are "good" that Congress will shield young immigrants from deportation, extend health insurance for children and aid to community health clinics later this month.
The Oregon Democrat made his comment Friday to Pamplin Media Group editors after he spoke at a downtown Portland rally in support of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
The joint federal-state program provides coverage for 9 million children — 140,000 in Oregon during 2016 — from families who earn too much to qualify for state-supported Medicaid, but too little to afford their own insurance. The 2-decade-old program expired Sept. 30, although a short-term extension is in place.
A Jan. 19 deadline is looming for overall spending authority, which has been extended twice since the federal budget year began Oct. 1. Democrats hope to tie the renewals to that must-pass bill.
"These are not partisan goals. These are programs that have existed in the past with bipartisan support. They are reasonable, they are common sense, they have a strong foundation in America," Merkley said.
"It's not an overreach to get those three programs done, and I think we have a good chance of getting them done."
CHIP renewal has been caught up in a partisan fight over funding in in the House, although the top Senate Finance Committee leaders — Republican Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon — have come up with an agreement.
"It's been a bipartisan, noncontroversial, results-proven program — exactly the sort of thing that should be relatively easy to do," Merkley said. "But it's been treated as a political chip in the broader partisan game of (government) funding for the next year."
Also on the table is protection against deportation for 800,000 young immigrants — 11,000 of them in Oregon — known as "Dreamers." Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program started by President Barack Obama in 2012, those brought to the United States illegally as children qualify for work permits that are renewable every two years.
President Donald Trump ordered an end to the program March 1 but invited Congress to work out its own solution. Majority Republicans are divided over what it may mean for the broader issue of immigration.
"It is accentuated by the tone the president cast during his campaign and his presidency in targeting immigrants," Merkley said.
Merkley said community health clinics serve people who earn too much to qualify for state-supported health insurance but too little to afford their own insurance. He said the clinics also broaden access to mental health and addiction treatment.
"It is a benefit to having a front door for health care," said Merkley, who noted that about two dozen new clinics have opened in Oregon in recent years.
"Getting that program reauthorized is an important piece of unfinished business that is now three months overdue."
Merkley touched on other Oregon issues during the hourlong meeting with Pamplin Media Group editors:
• Marijuana enforcement: A directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions gives federal prosecutors more leeway on marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law despite its legalization for recreational use in Oregon and seven other states.
Merkley said he met Thursday with Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, who outlined that office's approach. Merkley described it as similar to 2013 federal guidelines, known as the Cole memo, that focus on barring access by minors, growing on public lands, diverting marijuana to the black market or to states where it is still illegal, and involvement by organized crime.
"Those are appropriate activities for the federal government to undertake," Merkley said. "But let's keep the federal government out of trying to arrest people who are operating as small growers and consumers under state laws."
• Offshore drilling: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will open up federal leases despite opposition from the three West Coast states. Merkley has been an advocate of halting federal leases for development of all fossil fuels and moving toward 100 percent renewable energy sources for the nation by 2050.
"Just imagine Oregon's beaches soiled the way Louisiana was" after the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Merkley said.
• Federal aid for wildfires: Merkley said they should be funded as other natural disasters, such as floods, thus saving money in federal agency budgets for management activities such as forest thinning.
Merkley said he saw an example of how such a forest near Sisters reduced fire danger and benefited the community economically. "It's an example of how thinned forests can be a more resilient protection against the threat of forest fires," he said. "Overgrown second-growth forests are just disasters waiting to happen."
• Tax overhaul: Merkley joined all Democrats in opposition to the bill that passed solely along party lines and Trump signed Dec. 22. He said its benefits are weighted toward corporations and high-income households, it adds $1.5 trillion to the national debt over a decade, and it diverts money that Oregon and other states could have spent on improving education, health care and transportation.
"The bill exacerbates inequality in wealth and income in America," Merkley said. "It deprives us of the resources to help us tackle these core issues, the foundations for families to thrive."
He also said its end to a requirement for individual coverage under the Affordable Care Act will deprive 13 million Americans of insurance coverage over the next decade and raise insurance premiums by 10 percent.