Ron Wyden

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

With Democrats soon to control Congress and the White House, Americans can expect a large, long-term package of aid to get through the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Ron. Wyden, D-OR, said in a Friday interview. 

Wyden said he backed efforts to get President Donald Trump to resign or be removed from office. Wyden blamed Trump's speech Wednesday for sparking a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

On Friday, Wyden called for the resignations of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., for their leading roles in challenging the Electoral College vote confirming the election of Democrat Joe Biden as president. Trump urged supporters to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to support the effort, which turned into 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 of the pandemic that he said Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, tried to hide.

The truth is the COVID-19 crisis is deep, hard and won't be under control for months, even a year, Wyden said.

"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 hope 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 Trump first dismissed, then downplayed the exploding spread of the virus, he could never get beyond what the crisis meant to him personally, Wyden said. The national response became politicized.

When Trump himself was infected, he received emergency treatment using rare medicines that allowed for a swift recovery. Instead of being chastened by his brush with COVID-19, Trump told Americans not to let it control their lives. He personally rarely wore a mask in public.

Even when the Trump-initiated Operation Warp Speed helped scientists create two vaccines in less than a year,  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 Fauci's recommendations on social distancing and hygiene. 

One of the hardest things for Biden and incoming officials to do will be to level with Americans about how long and costly the fight against COVID-19 will be in the next year. The virus will kill many more people and cripple more businesses until brought under control.

In a separate press call on Friday, Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said many state residents may have to wait until autumn for their turn in the priority list. The limited amount of vaccine and logistics problems make time estimates difficult, Allen said. Some outside health groups have estimated it could be well into 2022 before everyone in the United States who wants the vaccine is inoculated.

Wyden said that throughout the crisis, Trump had given Americans a false sense that the end of the infection would come very soon.

"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. It's bad public policy to guess 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 that 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 financing programs always came with a three or six month end date. The political fight over the next round of help would lead to dramatic deadlines like the end of 2020 cutoff of many federal benefits.

Distress for millions of people was averted at the last hour with a compromise $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 in place. Only then would programs be scaled back or shut down.

Wyden, 71, will mark 25 years in the Senate in February. He recently announced plans to run for 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 Wyden said his longevity gives a little state a big presence on Capitol Hill. He pointed to the federal allocation of COVID-19 vaccines.

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

Democrats' ability to get their objectives to Biden's desk in the White House rely on fragile majorities in the Senate and House.

With the twin victories on Tuesday by Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff for Georgia's two U.S. Senate seats, there will be a rare 50-50 power split between Democrats and Republicans.

After the Jan. 20 inauguration, Vice-President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, will service as President of the Senate. The constitution allows her to break tie votes. That power is especially crucial in the first days of the new Senate when leadership and committee chairmanships are assigned.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, is expected to become Majority Leader and  McConnell will be minority leader of the Republicans. Democrats will become chairs of the committees — Wyden is expected to lead the Senate Finance Committee. 

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

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.

The Senate has no official rules on how to make the division work, except for 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."

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 for president in the 2000 election, the Republican vice-president, Dick Cheney, was the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. The two party leaders agreed that while Republicans would hold committee chairmanships, each committee would have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Normally, the majority party is given a numerical advantage in the committee membership.

The deal lasted five months, until Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., announced he was leaving the GOP to become an independent and would caucus with Democrats, giving them an outright majority.

Adding to the 2021 confusion is the new Senate officially 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, setting up the 50-50 tie.

Wyden said no decision has yet been made, but the 2001 power-sharing model in workable. The alternative would be for Democrats to give themselves a majority on each committee, with each move requiring Harris to vote. 

The Senate has much more open political animosity in 2021 than in 2001, Wyden said. But the leaders and ranking members of committees are among the most senior Senators, who remember a more collegial atmosphere that contained much of the open rancor.

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.

"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."

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 this week to challenge some of Biden's Electoral College votes.  

Asked about Bentz's position and any linkage with the Trump supporters' rampage in the Capitol, 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 hold control of the Senate, even a moderate drop in numbers at the 2024 midterm elections would throw either or both chambers back to Republican control.

Not much has been historically normal under Trump and Wyden is optimistic that voters' reactions to the chaos under Trump and McConnell will help Democrats maintain their majorities.

But the reality is Democrats are only assured of two years to get their their priorities enacted before new ballots are cast that could change the political 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.

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