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Oregon Democrat says divided Congress will agree to more than Trump wants; he pledges continued support for Scoggins Dam replacement or reinforcement. He recaps his criticism of Trump immigration policy.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks at a Westside Economic Alliance breakfast forum Wednesday, Oct. 9, at Embassy Suites in Tigard. Among those in the audience were from left Brantley Dettmer, WEA board president; state Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and Ed Trompke, a lawyer who spoke for the Lake Oswego firm of Jordan Ramis, the presenting sponsor.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says the nation needs to spend more to alleviate housing shortages and soaring prices.

The Oregon Democrat spoke Wednesday, Oct. 9, at a breakfast forum of the Westside Economic Alliance.

He said that unlike President Donald Trump's budget, a Republican Senate and a Democratic House are moving to maintain community development block grants — at least at their current level — and boost federal money for homeless and rental assistance.

Trump's budget proposed to end community development block grants, a 45-year-old program under which Washington County and the cities of Beaverton and Hillsboro get money for housing and public works improvements. Merkley, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Senate version maintains the program and raises homeless assistance by $125 million nationally and renter assistance by $2 billion.

Senate and House versions of spending bills must be reconciled. The federal government is operating under a continuing resolution that started Oct. 1, when the new budget year began, and ends Nov. 21.

"We have got to invest in a lot more resources for housing," Merkley said to the audience at Embassy Suites in Tigard.

According to a 2016 study conducted by Portland State University, the county is 14,000 units short of housing for low-income households. The study said no single action can remedy that problem.

When Merkley's father bought a three-bedroom house in East Portland in the early 1960s, it cost about twice the annual wages he earned as a mechanic. Merkley still lives in that area today, when he is not in Washington, but that a comparable home is five or six times the average wages of a mechanic.

"It means homeownership is out of reach," he said. "If homeownership is out of reach and you are renting, it means you are tied to a lifetime of rent increases. You can think of homeownership as a way to lock in your cost of housing for the rest of your life."

Scoggins Dam support

In response to a question by Kathryn Harrington, Washington County board chairwoman, Merkley said $2 million is included for continued engineering on the Scoggins Dam project. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam near Gaston, is expected to recommend early next year whether a new structure should be built downstream or the existing structure reinforced against a severe earthquake off the Oregon coast.

Hagg Lake is the main water supply for the county. Either alternative would increase its capacity, but a new dam would allow greater storage for streamflows and agricultural and municipal uses.

"This project is critical to the future of the county," Merkley said. "Nothing can be guaranteed in terms of outcomes. But I'm going to be fighting all out."

Later, Merkley celebrated the $640 million in federal loans to Tualatin Valley Water District and Hillsboro to build the $1.2 billion Willamette Water Supply Program, which will draw from the Willamette River to provide a backup source of water for them and other cities that join the project. The loans from the Environmental Protection Agency were made possible under a federal program Merkley conceived in 2014 and President Barack Obama signed into law in 2016.

Merkley spent about half of his 30-minute presentation discussing immigration, drawn from his recent book, "America Is Better Than This: Trump's War Against Migrant Families." The book emerged from a series of visits that Merkley made to detention camps on the southern border with Mexico, starting in mid-2018, and drew attention to the Trump administration policy of separating migrant children from adults.

The visits drew national attention — and though the policy was ended, migrant families are still kept in detention camps.

"Using the strategy of injuring children as part of a political process is a dark and evil thing that we have to make sure never happens again in the United States," Merkley said to sustained applause.

In response to another question, Merkley conceded that unlike 2013 — when an immigration-law overhaul passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote, only to die in the Republican-controlled House in 2014 — a similar bill is unlikely to come up in the current Republican-controlled Senate. He said Democrats must win a majority there, keep the House and defeat Trump in 2020 for action to occur.

"We shouldn't be snuffing out Lady Liberty's torch," he said. "We should instead be fixing a broken immigration system."

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