Ron Wyden

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, speaks at a town hall meeting in Bend in 2018. 

With Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, and Democrat Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration approaching, Americans can expect a large, long-term package of aid to help get through the COVID-19 pandemic that will likely last well into the year, Sen. Ron. Wyden, D-Oregon, said in a Friday interview.

Wyden said he was supporting efforts to get President Donald Trump to resign or be removed from office after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, sparked by Trump’s speech to protestors. On Friday he called for the resignations of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, for their roles in the Electoral College challenge that set off riots culminating in a siege of the Capitol.

“Any senator exhorting such an assault violates their sworn oath and is unworthy of holding federal office,” Wyden said. “There must be consequences for senators who would foment a violent mob for personal gain.”

But focus also has to be sharp on what to do after Trump is gone.

“We’re going to get $2,000 checks out to Americans as soon as we can,” Wyden said. “We’re going to get those $600 federal unemployment benefits back. We’ve got folks who are hurting desperately — they’re not able to pay their rent, buy their groceries, get medicine for their kids.”

Wyden said the political change in Washington, D.C., will reveal the reality that Wyden said Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, have tried to hide: The COVID-19 crisis is deep, hard and won’t be under control for months, even a year.

“These safety net issues are so essential, they should not depend on whim of one political person,” Wyden said of McConnell. “There was a strategy before not to admit how bad things are.”

Congress is also ready to help Biden lift the fog of conflicting policies and statements about the pandemic that has killed more than 367,000 Americans this year. Democrats believe they will get significant Republican support for a major push to get vaccines created, transported and into the arms of Americans as swiftly as possible.

“Deployment without delays,” Wyden said.

Because President Trump at first dismissed, then downplayed, the exploding spread of the virus, Wyden said, Trump could never get beyond what the crisis meant to him personally. The national response became politicized. When Trump himself was infected, he was given emergency treatment using rare medicines that allow for a swift recovery. Instead of being chastened by his brush with COVID, Trump told Americans not to let it control their lives, and he personally rarely wore a mask.

Even when the Trump-initiated Operation Warp Speed helped scientists create two vaccines in less than a year, with more to come, Trump was still holding parties and large rallies with supporters who did not wear masks, spreading the infection.

“He didn’t want to do the hard work needed,” Wyden said of a national fight against COVID-19.

Biden has promised a “science-based” policy led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Under Trump, Fauci found his advice often ignored and endured the president’s promotion of quack cures and personal opposition to the national effort to have Americans wear masks in public.

One of the hardest changes will be to level with Americans that COVID-19 will kill more people and cripple more businesses for much of 2021. In a separate press call on Friday, Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said the limited amount of vaccine and the priority list of who should get the shot means that many in the state will have to wait until as late as autumn of this year for their turn. Other estimates have pushed the date into 2022.

“It is hard to turn away from the reality,” Wyden said. “The fact is we have a coronavirus spike that is greater than spring. We’re starting to get projections of other mutations of the virus.”

Wyden said that’s why aid programs need to be untethered to artificial end dates created by guesses on how bad the situation will be months or a year down the road.

“You don’t want people constantly worried about what is next,” Wyden said.

Wyden said, on a practical level, that means federal aid to people, businesses, cities and states will be needed for as long as it takes. Under Republicans in the Senate, end dates for programs were always included, sometimes leading to dramatic deadlines like the end of the year cutoff of most benefits that was narrowly averted at the last minute with a $900 million stimulus deal. Democrats wanted something closer to the CARES Act passed early in the crisis that pumped $2.2 trillion into the economy.

Wyden said he would like to see as many programs as possible be self-renewing until metrics showing a strong, sustained recovery is in place before they would be shut down or curtailed.

Wyden will mark 25 years in the Senate in February. At 71 years old, he announced recently his plan to seek another six-year term in 2022. Wyden said the reason is simple: “There is so much to do.”

Other items on his personal legislative agenda include reviving a bi-partisan effort to limit prescription drug prices and making mental health care easier to obtain, particularly in rural areas like Central and Eastern Oregon.

“People can have widely different political philosophies, but will come together when they see a way to get a job done,” Wyden said.

Wyden also hopes to continue his efforts to ensure the security and apolitical direction of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

The Senate operates based on seniority and by running again in 2022, he says a little state can have a big presence on Capitol Hill. He pointed to his ability to get answers on the allocation of COVID-19 vaccines.

“There have been questions if Oregon is getting its fair share,” he said.

Democrats’ ability to get their objectives through Congress and on to Biden’s desk rely on fragile majorities in the Senate and House.

With the twin victories of Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races on Tuesday, the Senate will have a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans.

The vice president is the president of the Senate and can cast a tie-breaking vote when necessary. This is crucial in the first days of the new Senate when Vice-President Kamala Harris’ vote ensures Democratic control of the Senate. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, will become majority leader and Republican Mitch McConnell will be minority leader. Democrats will become chairs of the committees — Wyden will lead the Senate Finance Committee.

Democrats won the White House and control of the Senate in the 2020 election, but lost seats in the House, which it already controlled. The new 117th Congress has a 222-212 Democratic majority.

Wyden will be taking part in a split Senate, but it isn’t his first time. Republicans and Democrats each had 50 senators after the 2000 election. There’s no official policy on how to make the division work, except for {span}Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”{/span}

{span}When the 2001 Senate met, Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota forged a power-sharing agreement. Since George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote in the 2000 election, the Republican vice-president, Dick Cheney, was the tie-breaking vote. The two leaders agreed that, while Republicans would hold committee chairmanships after Bush’s inauguration, each committee would have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. When there is an outright majority, that party also has a numerical advantage in the committee membership. The deal lasted five months, until Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vermont, announced he was leaving the GOP to become an independent and would caucus with Democrats, giving them an outright majority.{/span}

{span}Adding to the 2021 confusion is the new Senate actually has just 48 Democrats. However, Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders are officially independents, but take part in the caucus of the Democrats, giving it 50 votes to equal Republicans.{/span}

{span}Wyden said there has been no decision yet, but he thinks the power-sharing setup from 2000 is a good model. The alternative would be for Democrats to give themselves a majority on each committee, with each move requiring Harris to vote. {/span}

{span}Though there is more open political animosity in 2021 than in 2001, the chairs of the committee and the ranking Republican are almost all more senior members who have worked in the more collegial atmosphere of sessions before. Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, will get the top GOP slot on the Finance Committee. He’s been in the Senate since 1996, and was Wyden’s colleague during their earlier tenures in the House.{/span}

“Senator Crapo and I have worked together on forestry, infrastructure, and other issues, making sure they got into the final aid packages,” Wyden said.

Enjoying good relationships with Republicans means finding common ground based on shared principles. That usually leads to better legislation, Wyden said. But it is not a catch-all.

“It’s not just agree to agree,” he said.

Wyden also said he is ready to work with the Oregon delegation’s newest member, U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. Bentz joined a splinter group of Republicans to challenge some of the Electoral College votes this week, the focus of the riots at the Capitol.

Asked about Bentz’s position and any linkage with the Trump supporters’ rampage, Wyden said that’s a private matter.

“The Oregon delegation has a history of not commenting on members’ votes,” Wyden said. “I have worked with Rep. Bentz when he was in the Legislature and talked with him about crucial economic issues facing Oregon. There are many issues on which there can be common ground, like energy and natural resources.”

Wyden is well aware that, historically, the party of the President loses seats in the House during mid-term elections. On the Senate side, 34 of the 100 seats are on the ballot in 2022. While the electoral map gives Democrats a strong chance to add to their majority, any unexpected losses would throw the Senate back to Republicans.

While hoping voters’ reactions to the chaos under Trump and McConnell will help Democrats hold off any losses, the reality is they have two years to get their priorities enacted before the elections change the math.

There’s a simple rule, Wyden said, to making the 21 months until the next election as good as they can be for Democrats and, Wyden says, for his constituents in Oregon.

“We need to stick to issues that, in a straightforward way, respond to needs of working people,” Wyden said.gwarner@eomediagroup.com

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