Oregon’s Sen. Merkley opposes debt deal while Rep. Bentz praises it

The deal by President Joe Biden and congressional leaders would suspend the debt limit until 2025

By: - May 31, 2023 5:05 pm
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said he’ll vote against the debt ceiling deal. (Bonnie Cash-Pool/Getty Images)

UPDATED at 7:04 p.m. Wednesday with the U.S. House vote and reactions.

At least one member of Oregon’s congressional delegation plans to vote against the debt ceiling deal brokered by congressional leaders and President Joe Biden.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a news release on Wednesday he plans to vote against the bill, which would suspend the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling and enable the country to pay its bills until Jan. 1, 2025, after the presidential and other elections. The deal has sparked criticism on the left and right – and praise, including from Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz, who represents Oregon’s  2nrd congressional district. Merkley, however, said he could not endorse the bill. 

“This bill breaks with recent, established and bipartisan practice, cutting programs that are the foundations for thriving families – including health care, housing and education – to increase military spending,” Merkley said in a statement. 

The House passed the bill Wednesday evening by 314-117, sending it to the U.S. Senate. 

Merkley said the bill would set “truly horrific” precedents related to the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, now under construction to pump natural gas across streams and wetlands in West Virginia to Virginia. It’s a pet project of Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, but many locals and environmentalists who say the pipeline is obsolete and would harm the environment fiercely oppose it. Merkley said the debt deal would exempt the pipeline from environmental law, and he said the project had already racked up 500 violations in the two states.

Merkley said he also opposes a provision in the deal that dictates the court jurisdiction for the pipeline in the event of lawsuits.

“For Congress to – by law – move a court case from one jurisdiction to another, to provide a special favor to a powerful corporation, is fundamentally corrupt. This is a line we should never cross,” Merkley said, calling the pipeline “an assault against a sustainable planet.”

“We must recognize that fossil gas is just as damaging as coal. Pretending otherwise is leading us to climate catastrophe,” he said.

Merkley said the bill’s passage would allow fossil fuel companies to escape accountability, essentially allowing them to write their own environmental impact assessments and exempting them from federal environmental protections.

At the same time, Merkley acknowledged the potential damage of a debt default.

“I fully recognize that a debt default would be a disaster for working families and must never be allowed to happen,” Merkley said.

He accused House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, and “MAGA Republicans” of holding Americans hostage in the debt crisis. According to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the U.S. will soon be unable to pay its bills, which would be a first for the country. Economists say a default would likely trigger a recession and international crisis while delaying federal benefits such as Social Security payments that many people depend on to survive.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz
U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon, told the Capital Chronicle he supports the debt ceiling deal. (Malheur Enterprise)

Democratic and Republican leaders have said ensuring that the country does not go into default is a priority. Bentz, one of Oregon’s two Republican U.S. representatives, echoed that sentiment in an interview with the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday before the House vote on the bill.

“We do not want a default,” Bentz said. “The Republicans understand the damage that would occur.”

He said the bill marked a victory for the House leadership on environmental and fiscal fronts.

“It is a reflection of some very, very, very serious and successful negotiations with President Biden. I have nothing but the greatest respect for the team that went in and negotiated this deal,” Bentz said. “We stopped President Biden from imposing additional taxes. He wanted more taxes.”

The bill would freeze billions of dollars in unspent COVID-related money already approved by Congress, which Bentz said would ensure that the funds were not wasted or misspent. He praised the deal for including a provision attributed to U.S. Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky that would limit future budgets to 99% of the current budget in the event that Congress did not pass a spending plan. 

“It’s a really clever idea and one that gives us a much stronger hand in negotiating for more conservative budgets,” Bentz said.

Bentz also likes the bill’s tightened work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Current law requires able-bodied adults aged 49 or younger to work or participate in job training to receive SNAP benefits, though states have leeway in applying that requirement. The debt deal would extend work requirements to age 54, though it adds exemptions for some people, including veterans. About one in six Oregonians receive SNAP benefits, but they are not enough to cover recipients’ food budgets.

Bentz said he supports a provision in the bill that would affect new spending by Biden by forcing the administration to balance any increases in spending with corresponding decreases, a policy known as pay go, or pay it as you go.

“This is a great first,” Bentz said.

And unlike Merkley, Bentz praised the environmental provisions in the bill, saying they would allow energy projects to move forward more quickly.

“This is a really good bill,” Bentz said. “It’s not perfect but it achieves a great deal.”

Bentz released a statement after the vote, hailing the result. U.S. Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat who represents Oregon’s 6th District, also released a statement, saying she voted for the bill:

“A default would have jeopardized the hard-earned benefits, livelihoods, and lifesavings of tens of thousands of Oregonians in the Sixth District — and this deal, while imperfect, will help avert fiscal calamity. Now, Congress must turn its attention to the many other pressing matters at hand. From expanding access to mental health care to ensuring we craft a robust Farm Bill, we have no shortage of business to attend to — and it’s in the best interest of all Americans that we continue to do so in a bipartisan fashion.”

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat who represents Oregon’s 3rd District, also voted “yes.”

“This is not the bill I would have written, but the choice isn’t between this and something else,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “The choice is between passing this legislation or allowing extremist Republicans to crash the global economy. This legislation gives us two years of certainty on the debt ceiling so we are not back in this hostage situation next year.”

The other Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, who represents the 5th District, also supported the bill. She said it would cap inflation by limiting a rise in future spending, streamline construction projects and create good-paying jobs in Oregon.

“I’m optimistic that this legislation will mark a new chapter in Washington – ushering in a new era of fiscal responsibility that will ensure our children and grandchildren don’t get stuck with our maxed-out $31 trillion credit card,” Chavez-DeRemer said.

But Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Hoyle of Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, voted against the bill.

“We should be passing a clean bill to pay for what we’ve already bought, exactly as Republicans supported under Reagan and Trump,” Hoyle said in a statement. “Instead, we got a messy bill that guts environmental protections, greenlights a fossil fuel pipeline, strips essential government programs and takes food from the mouths of the most vulnerable members of our society. I refuse to support a precedent of letting congressional Republicans threaten to tank the U.S. economy by failing to support a clean bill.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon’s 1st District, also voted “no.”

“It would be devastating for our country to default, but I could not in good conscience vote for a plan to lift the debt ceiling that would harm some of the most vulnerable people in our country and undermine bedrock environmental laws,” Bonamici said in a statement. Although I am grateful that the deal doesn’t include some of the House GOP’s most egregious demands –  such as gutting Medicaid and repealing clean energy tax credits the budget cuts and burdensome work requirements will harm the people safety net programs like SNAP are designed to help. The bill also makes changes to environmental laws that would set us back on protecting clean air and water and transitioning to clean energy. It restarts payments on student loans without putting a safety net in place for vulnerable borrowers.”

The other member of Oregon’s congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, is evaluating the deal, according to a spokesman, but indicated in a statement that he was not enthusiastic about it.

“It proves what we’ve said all along: Republicans were willing to crash the economy and cut off Social Security payments to help their wealthy donors cheat on their taxes,” Wyden said in a statement.

The U.S. Senate could vote on the deal as soon as Thursday.


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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.