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Democrat says Trump is right to go after unfair practices, but wrong in his go-it-alone approach, as Oregon's trade-dependent economy hinges on the outcome.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., at a town hall meeting Jan. 20 at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas. Seated at right are Ken Humberston and Sonya Fischer, Clackamas County commissioners. Wyden met Monday, Aug. 19, with Pamplin Media Group editors.U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says President Donald Trump is right to go after what both agree are China's unfair trade practices — but Trump is going about it all wrong.

Instead of pitting the United States against China, each raising tariffs on the other's goods, the Oregon Democrat says there is a better approach.

"The first thing I would do is junk this go-it-alone approach. I'd go out and get some allies, tell them we have this problem with China cheating, and get them together," Wyden said Monday, Aug. 19, at a meeting with Pamplin Media Group editors.

"Allies are good for two things: Trade deals, and they can help us stand together against China, where there is a very real problem." Among the issues: China's theft of trade secrets, China's onerous requirements on foreign companies that want to do business there, and China's subsidies to some of its own businesses.

Wyden said Trump passed up a chance to forge such an alliance when he shelved the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after he became president in 2017. Six of Oregon's top 10 trading partners were part of that multinational agreement: Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Mexico.

Wyden said the stakes are high for Oregon, where one of every five jobs depends on trade — and Oregon's leading trade partner in 2018 was China, which received Oregon exports valued at $4.8 billion. Goods range from farm products to high-value items made in Washington County, such as high-tech soles from Nike and computer chips from Intel, which travel on Cathay Pacific flights from Portland to Hong Kong.

"I think Trump's trade policy is so incoherent," Wyden said. "It zigs and zags, sometimes 180 degrees in a matter of weeks. It is doing a lot of damage to Oregon."

Trump announced a new round of tariffs on Chinese goods — tariffs that are paid by U.S. importers and consumers, not China — then delayed some of them until after the start of the holiday shopping season. The administration also announced a 90-day reprieve for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies to do business with U.S. companies, but it also put 46 Huawei subsidiaries on notice that U.S. companies cannot do business with them for national security reasons.

Bipartisan hope

Wyden was asked about being in a Senate that as Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, put it last week in the New York Times: "These days, the Senate is a great job for someone who enjoys banging his or her head against a wall."

"There is no question that the extremes are stronger than at any point since I've been in public life," said Wyden, who entered Congress in 1981 and was elected to the Senate in 1996.

"Sometimes people say I'm just pushing the rock up the hill again, again and again and I cannot get it up there. But my job is to show up every day and represent the best place on the planet, which expects people to step up and solve some problems."

Wyden said legislation that he and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley advanced before the congressional recess gives him hope.

"We defied the odds. We got a sweeping pharmaceutical bill through the Finance Committee," he said. "But it is just a start on what we need to have done."

Wyden and Grassley, the committee chairman, got their proposal through on a 19-9 vote on July 25. Six Republicans joined all 13 Democrats to vote for it.

The bill sets a medication out-of-pocket maximum of $3,100 for beneficiaries of Medicare, the federal program of health insurance for people 65 and older, starting in 2022. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Medicare spending on prescription drugs amounted to $137 billion in 2015.

The bill also penalizes pharmaceutical companies if the prices of their drugs rise faster than inflation. They would pay the excess into a fund, proceeds from which help seniors who cannot afford their medications. Wyden likened it to a "luxury tax" that sports teams pay if their payrolls exceed a specified cap.

"In the past, the (drug) lobby has said that any effort by government to hold down their prices will constitute price control — and that we will not have innovation," Wyden said.

But he said the big increases also apply to older drugs such as insulin.

"That drug is not 13 times better — it's basically been the same drug for decades," he said. "But the pharmaceutical lobby can do it because they can do it. Nobody is restraining them."

Uncertain prospects

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill will save U.S. taxpayers $85 billion over 10 years and beneficiaries will save $27 billion.

But the bill faces an uncertain fate in the full Senate, which has a Republican majority — and the main trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, opposes it. Trump has not endorsed a specific approach, although he has called for lower drug prices.

A different version in the House, which is controlled by Democrats, is likely to add price-negotiating authority for the federal government for Medicare and Medicaid, the federal-state program of health insurance for low-income people. Wyden said he would support such authority, which Republican majorities in Congress took away in 2003 when they approved prescription-drug coverage under Medicare.

Wyden said he would like to add one more provision.

"We are not going to move this bill without an up-or-down vote on protecting people with pre-existing conditions," he said, referring to guaranteed insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law under challenge in federal courts. The Trump administration has sided with Republican attorneys general in states that sued to have the law overturned.

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