Ukraine a major topic at Sen. Merkley's WashCo town hall
Constituents in Washington County expressed concerns over the war in Ukraine, and how to build back services that were hampered or lost entirely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, during a virtual town hall held by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday, April 6.
One constituent explained how his family has been displaced by the war in Ukraine, and asked Merkley what efforts were being directed to addressing the refugee crisis — especially given that the Biden administration recently announced a commitment to accept 100,000 Ukrainians into the county.
Merkley admitted that the picture isn't good for refugees right now. He blamed the Trump administration, which slashed refugee quotas during its four years in office, for hampering a lot of the capacity for processing those coming into the country.
"All the organizations that support refugees have atrophied over the last few years, because essentially they were cut off from funding by the Trump administration," Merkley said. "So, essentially, we have to rebuild most of those organizations and make sure they are providing those resources for refugees who are displaced."
More than 7 million Ukrainians have been displaced since Russia invaded the country, according to the latest survey by the United Nations International Organization for Migration.
Other asked more military-oriented questions, about whether the Biden administration will provide offensive weapons and equipment to aid Ukraine's war efforts. Most of the military aid sent to the country has focused on defense systems designed to help stave off the Russian invasion, rather than tanks or other equipment that might allow Ukrainians to reclaim lost territory.
Merkley pointed to the $13.6 billion aid package passed by Congress to support Ukraine, half of which was humanitarian aid and the other half being military equipment. But he cited logistical and political problems with getting that aid into the country and doing more in terms of military action.
Supply lines into Ukraine have been stalled, though he said there is positive progress on that front. But providing Ukrainians with fighter jets and tanks may not be helpful, he added, since Ukrainians aren't trained in how to use U.S. equipment. And more direct involvement by the American military — either in providing training or direct combat operations — risks escalating the conflict.
"Since the Cold War and the nuclear standoff between the then-Soviet Union and the United States, there has been care on both sides that our two militaries never directly fight each other," he said. "Because once they fight each other, it becomes a bigger fight, and a bigger fight becomes potentially a nuclear war."
It wasn't all focused on foreign affairs, however. Constituents also asked about domestic issues.
Students from local public schools asked questions of the senator, too, with Amy Browning of Westview High School in Beaverton asking Merkley what he's doing to increase mental health resources for K-12 students — particularly due to the increase in mental health issues caused by remote learning and the isolation of the pandemic.
Merkley said he's been pursuing a bill since even before the pandemic that would bolster funding for school counselors.
"I put together a bill which would essentially pay for the counselors to be added, with priority for our lower income schools to meet the suggested national ratio, which means a lot more counselors," he said.
But Merkley also acknowledged that his solution requires more people to go into the counseling profession, because the supply of professionals for school districts to hire is lacking.
"We also know that we have to increase the pipeline of counselors, because there is simply not enough," he said. "So, I'm spreading the word: A great profession to study in college is to become a counselor, because right now school districts can't hire … enough of them."
Merkley also focused on broader national issues, saying that a major priority in Washington right now is to get the U.S. Senate to come to an agreement on the Build Back Better infrastructure bill, which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives but remains stalled in the higher chamber.
He specifically referenced how that spending bill included funding for combatting homelessness, investing in early childcare and preschool, as well as investments to combat climate change.
"I'm telling the President's team (to) take the key five or six senators, go to Camp David, lock them up and whatever they can agree to, let's do it, because right now, we have nothing in those categories," Merkley said. "These categories are too important to do nothing."
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