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Five-term Democrat talks about virus aid, student debt and job training, climate change.

COURTESY PHOTO: U.S. REP. SUZANNE BONAMICI - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., takes her turn in presenting the plan crafted by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. As she starts her fifth full term from northwest Oregon's 1st District, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici says Congress has a lot of unfinished business.

She says that business starts with a follow-up coronavirus aid plan to the $2.2 trillion CARES Act last spring — the House's Democratic majority has passed two plans, but nothing has advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate — and does not end there.

During a Nov. 25 virtual discussion that the Oregon Food Bank sponsored about hunger, Bonamici said, one Portland Community College student told her "she was one flat tire away from being hungry." Another said she was also on the verge of dropping out because of the need to care for siblings.

"It's just heartbreaking with the struggles people are going through," Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton, said in an interview Monday, Dec. 14, from her office in Washington, D.C.

"I do know there is a lot of need out there. I am committed to how we can get that support out to people."

Bonamici said agreement is widespread in Congress about the needs of families, unemployed workers and small businesses to get aid, for schools to reopen safely and for health care workers to test for and treat COVID-19 infections — and eventually vaccinate people.

She also supports more federal aid to state and local governments that Senate Republicans have resisted, although Democrats in both chambers support it.

"As an Oregonian and a former state legislator, I do not want to see cuts to public education — we need to make investments there — or to childcare," said Bonamici, a legislator from 2007 until she won a special election for her congressional seat in 2012.

She hopes that apparent agreement will result in a smaller plan, now at $908 billion, being negotiated as a potential attachment to the renewal of federal spending authority to keep the government going. The latest deadline is Dec. 18. (Previous House plans were for $3.4 trillion and $2.2 trillion. Senate Republicans have floated a $500 billion plan.)

"These should not be partisan issues. It's really unfortunate," Bonamici said.

"It is an honor to serve in the majority. We have been passing a lot of legislation that helps people and the economy and addressing these serious issues. But it shouldn't have to be only when Democrats are in the majority."

Democrats won a majority in the House in the 2018 elections, and Bonamici became chair of a subcommittee of the Education and Labor Committee. She shepherded a renewal of the Older Americans Act, which supports programs such as meals and service referral programs for seniors, and it was one of the few bills to clear both House and Senate in the current congressional session.

Democrats retain a bare majority in the new House that will be seated in January.

New year, old business

Bonamici hopes to retain her assignment to Education and Labor, as well as a seat on the Science, Space and Technology Committee and a select committee House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created on climate change. The latter hinges on Pelosi appointing a similar committee in the next session.

Bonamici said there's work to be done on college affordability — including potential forgiveness of student loan debt — and renewal of apprenticeship programs. She said the latter can tie in with President-elect Joe Biden's plans for climate change, including new incentives for development of clean energy and new jobs unrelated to fossil fuels.

Bonamici was a severe critic of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose agency denied 94% of applications for forgiveness of student loan debt despite Congress specifying it for people who chose to work in public-service jobs for at least 10 years. A federal judge chided the Education Department in his ruling against it.

House Democrats tackled the broader issue as part of the College Affordability Act (HR 4674), which a committee reported out but the full House has not voted on.

Bonamici said the incoming Biden administration has taken part in discussions about how much debt to forgive. She said the crushing amount of debt has deterred students from buying houses or starting families.

"Free community college and high education is something I have talked about for a long time," Bonamici said. She has talked about how she was able to go to Lane Community College and the University of Oregon, where she earned bachelor's and law degrees, without incurring heavy debt.

Climate change redux

At the same time, she said, Congress needs to update the 1937 National Apprenticeship Act — the House passed HR 8294 on Nov. 23 — to provide training for emerging jobs in clean energy and other fields.

"We need to make sure that when people go back to work, they have the skills they need for the jobs that are in their communities," she said.

Bonamici was involved in developing the climate-change proposals that the House select committee rolled out this past summer, and that dovetail with some of Biden's ideas. Outgoing President Donald Trump labeled the issue a hoax. But Biden has announced he wants the United States to rejoin the 2015 Paris accord, under which nations pledged voluntarily to cut greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2050.

"This is a plan based on science," she said. "We know we have to take action and start the transition to a clean-energy economy."

Bonamici acknowledges that climate change is the next big issue after the nation emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, which now has claimed more lives (300,000) than U.S. battle deaths during the four years the nation fought World War II.

Despite the news that vaccines against COVID-19 are being distributed, Bonamici said the pandemic is not yet over, as infections continue to rise in Oregon and elsewhere.

"If we had had national leadership from the start … that this is serious, it's worse than the flu and we need to take it seriously, if that message had been there from the outset, I think we would be in a different place," she said. "I am looking forward to having the national leadership we need to continue to get us through what will continue to be tough times."

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