The sanctions law, immigration, President Donald Trump, national resources and health care dominated a town hall meeting held by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Portland) at Eastern Oregon University yesterday afternoon.
After acknowledging Lyle Schwarz, Armen Woosley and Annette Whittington, all of La Grande — for the work they did to install a plaque honoring the four members of an Army Air Corps B-17 bomber crew who died Aug. 16, 1943, when the plane they were flying on a training mission crashed in a forest on the northeast edge of Umatilla County — Wyden opened the floor up for any questions or concerns from those attending the meeting.
The first question was based on concern about the current situation with North Korea and President Trump’s relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“What assurances can you give us that we won’t end up in a war?” he was asked.
Wyden stressed the importance of Congress’ bipartisanship during Trump’s presidency.
“I have never seen a Congress, on a bipartisan basis, tie the hands of the commander-in-chief the way this Congress has done,” he said. “There’s growing support that Congress (should) reassert themselves in order to ensure American interests are protected.”
Addressing the question about Putin, Wyden talked about the sanctions law, a law that “prohibits the president from waiving any of the sanctions that are in place against Putin, without congressional approval.”
Jumping subjects, Wyden was asked for updates and thoughts on Oregon being considered a sanctuary state for immigrants. In response, he referred to Trump’s recent decision that there would be no deal for the recipients of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Wyden said he remains hopeful that a majority in Congress can pass an immigration deal, including a renewal of DACA.
He told the La Grande audience that he recently met an undocumented woman who was worried about picking up medication for her daughter, for fear that there would be consequences based on her immigration status.
“We’re better than this,” Wyden said. “I think it’s time for justice for the Dreamers (DACA recipients). I, and others who believe so strongly in the Dreamers — and really abhor the idea of a wall (along the border with Mexico) — we got together and said we would support the funding for the wall because we want to get an agreement for the Dreamers. (But) the president walked away and said it wasn’t enough.”
Wyden added that he and his colleagues will continue to fight for DACA and hope to see some compromising from the president.
The environment was the next question that Wyden, who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was asked.
“What are you doing to rein in the atrocities that (Ryan) Zinke and (Scott) Pruitt are doing to our Earth?” a crowd member asked.
Zinke is the current United States Secretary of the Interior and is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal lands and natural resources. Scott Pruitt is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and is charged with enforcing environmental statutes such as the nation’s Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
Wyden said that he never wanted Pruitt to be in his current position — and that he may soon be released from it — but that he had voted for Zinke, since he believed Zinke’s values aligned with his own. However, since Zinke’s election, Wyden thinks he has strayed far from what he had originally stated.
“(Zinke has) been selling off public lands. Once you give up your treasure for exploitation, they are not coming back,” Wyden said. “I don’t know what (Zinke) has in mind, but on my watch we’re not going to see (oil rigs) at Haystack Rock.”
Wyden touched on Congress’ efforts toward wildfire prevention before answering questions about Trump’s taxes.
“This is the first time since Watergate that a president hasn’t released information about their taxes,” he said. “It seems like the lowest ethical bar (to refuse to submit tax returns).”
Wyden said that he introduced legislation that requires every presidential candidate to allow the public access to their tax returns.
“I asked for a vote, and it flopped,” Wyden said. “But I will keep coming back to it.”
The rest of the town meeting was focused on health care.
Bill Whitaker, of La Grande, who is a supporter for Health Care for all Oregon and a member of the Oregon Rural Action Health Care Reform Action Team, asked Wyden if he would become a sponsor to Senate Bill 1804 — which would give Medicare to all — that was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and has 17 other Democrat senators as original co-sponsors.
“Health care has always been my first love,” Wyden said. “Health care is a right.”
However, the senator said he believes the policy around the bill needs more work and didn’t commit to sponsoring it.
Responding to Whitaker, Wyden said, “You made a number of points I agree with, and a few I don’t. I share your view that Medicare is a guarantee. And I have always fought for that.”