U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden defended a student's right to challenge him on abortion — and supported a student's right to challenge the federal government on climate change — during an hourlong session Tuesday at Westview High School.
The Oregon Democrat visits high schools regularly to meet with students, who on Tuesday asked him about issues ranging from immigration and impeachment to health care and gun regulation.
But one student said the audience should refer to "President Trump," not just "Trump," and proclaimed herself a supporter of his re-election in 2020. She did not identify herself.
When some in the audience of more than 100 began to make restive noises, Wyden said she should be free to speak.
"I know it takes courage to get up and express your views knowing that a fair number will disagree," he said.
When she asked him directly how he stood on abortion, Wyden said he has supported family planning, adoption and other services that make abortion rare or unnecessary.
"I also want every Oregonian to know that I believe deeply that it is not the choice of the government. It is the choice of the woman with her doctor and her priest," Wyden said to applause. "One of the reasons I try to make abortion rare, and (support) family planning and prevention services, is that there are ways we can work together while we respect everyone's point of view."
Her response: "It is my firm belief that to get past all the crises we have in this day and age, we have to work together — not just you, but also me and the people around me. .. If we all don't work together, we're already dead."
As she moved toward the rear of the auditorium, Wyden mentioned his efforts with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa to write legislation to curb soaring increases in drug prices and cap out-of-pocket costs for Medicare recipients. Grassley is chairman and Wyden the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, which advanced the bill on July 25. But it faces strong opposition from drugmakers and is headed to an uncertain future in the full Senate.
"I really do believe that finding common ground based on principle .. helps to bring us together," Wyden said.
Wyden got a leadoff question from Isaac Vergun, a Westview student and one of the plaintiffs in a pending federal lawsuit on climate change. It alleges that the federal government has done too little to protect the public trust for future generations.
Vergun likened the climate-change challenge to a pledge by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in May 1940 — about 18 months before the United States was thrust into World War II — that the country should set a goal of producing 50,000 aircraft annually. Critics said it could not be done, but by 1944, U.S. annual production had doubled that mark on its way to a total of 300,000 by the end of the war.
"I'd like you to pledge to lead the way in this effort" to deal with climate change, Vergun said.
Wyden recalled that his own father, who fled Nazi Germany before the war, enlisted in the Army to write anti-Nazi leaflets and other material.
"If ever there was a group that deserves to have standing on a particular issue, it is your generation, because your generation is going to be affected by climate change," he said.
He restated his proposal to do away with more than 40 existing federal tax breaks, most of which benefit fossil-fuel development, and replace them with just three to promote renewable sources, develop clean transportation fuel, and encourage energy efficiency.
"Let's tell everybody in the United States it's time to get more green that actually costs us less green," he said. "When you have something that is urgent business, what you say is that everybody has got to step up."
Later, in response to another question, Wyden said he is mindful that it will take time to make a transition.
"If a fossil-fuel company is transitioning to something cleaner and greener and doing it with a sense of urgency, then it can enjoy the three tax breaks I have looked at," he said.
Roshun Sunder, a senior, said he was satisfied with Wyden's response about the national obsession with Trump's tweets at the expense of a serious discussion of public policy.
"The question I asked was broad," Sunder said. "I think he did a good job of narrowing it and talking about how we need to address the concerns of the American people to try to disrupt the cycle of polarization."
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