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Sen. Jeff Merkley from Oregon opposes the debt ceiling bill heading to the Senate


All right. It's Thursday, June 1. The federal government has until next Monday, June 5, to raise the debt ceiling and avoid defaulting on its financial obligations. Now, the compromise bill to do that passed the narrowly divided House of Representatives yesterday by a less narrow vote of 314 in favor to 117 against. Now the bill heads to the Senate, where leaders of both parties support its swift passage. But not everyone is on board on the right or on the left. In a statement, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon said, quote, "I cannot in good conscience vote for this bill." We asked Senator Merkley to join us to explain. Welcome, Senator.

JEFF MERKLEY: Well, it's a pleasure to be with you.

CHANG: It's a pleasure to have you. So in that statement that you issued, your primary opposition to this bill - the way I understand it is based on environmental concerns, specifically regarding a natural gas pipeline through Appalachian states and changes to an environmental protection law, right? Can you just tell me why these issues were red lines for you?

MERKLEY: Well, really, there are three big problems with the bill. And the first is that the way it was negotiated and conceding to the hostage-taking means there will be hostage-taking on every other debt ceiling into the future. We have to end that cycle of this self-destructive activity. The second is that I've been hearing from my constituents about what they want us to do, and they are talking about, hey; we need help with affordable housing, mental health programs, stopping fentanyl and restoring child care. And this bill will do a lot to undermine any federal programs that could possibly help with those four key things. And then the third - as you mentioned, this bill is a climate catastrophe. We keep greenlighting new fossil fuel projects while we are essentially already at the carbon cap, very close to it - the 1.5 degrees. And America has burned most of that carbon. The rest of the world is looking at us saying, hey; you're preaching climate, but you're not walking the walk. You're continuing to be one of the biggest polluters in the world.

CHANG: I hear your concerns, but, you know, it's clear that neither side got everything they wanted out of this compromise. And the Biden administration has been arguing that this legislation still preserves a number of key climate or environmental priorities. Do you think that that is fair of them to say that?

MERKLEY: If you're talking compromise, everything in this was off the Republican wishlist. This was not some of ours, some of yours. This was a hostage-taking for doing damage to the environment and, well, undermining in addition all of the key provisions of NEPA, the bedrock environmental law. In this - and this has been way underreported - are whole series of changes that do things like saying corporations can write their own environmental impact statement. That is the proverbial fox in the henhouse. And there's, like, five of those provisions stuck into this bill.

CHANG: Even so, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, your Democratic leader in the Senate, is encouraging that the chamber pass this bill quickly without amendments that would stall the process. He says that time is a luxury that the Senate does not have if we want to prevent default. What is your response to Schumer's position there?

MERKLEY: The egregious pieces of this bill are not ones that I can accommodate. Certainly it is the case that normally we do all we can to help promote a Democratic president and that Schumer's work - you know, he's helping President Biden on this, and he was part of the negotiation. But listen. The key here is that from the very beginning, this was a failure of imagination. And by that, I mean you have the president envisioning this as either, the Republicans drive this over the cliff, or I take a whole bunch of stuff off their agenda and help get it passed. Meanwhile, he had very powerful executive tools that he never put to work. He never pursued a Protect our CREDIT act that would end this cycle of hostage-taking. And so we are where we are now that I cannot in good conscience vote for this bill.

CHANG: Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Thank you very much for your time today.

MERKLEY: You're very welcome, Ailsa. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.