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Oregon's Jeff Merkley Becomes First Senator To Endorse Bernie Sanders

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In the Senate, it is now 40 to 1. That's 40 Senate endorsements for Hillary Clinton, one for Bernie Sanders. That endorsement came this morning on the op-ed page of The New York Times. It's from Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who's in the studio with us. Welcome to the program.

JEFF MERKLEY: Well, thanks so much. It's great to be with you.

SIEGEL: What do you see as Sen. Sanders' path to victory given Hillary Clinton's significant lead in pledged delegates and popular vote?

MERKLEY: Well, I'm going to leave the analysis of the challenge to others. Certainly, it is an uphill climb, but amazing things can happen in campaigns. My motivation is really to call to - for support for the candidate that I think has the strong, bold vision of where America needs to go on the biggest issues facing our nation.

SIEGEL: There's been some criticism of Bernie Sanders that he might be in out of his depth when he was questioned about how he would break up the banks by the Daily News editorial board. He seemed to not have any good answer for the most important issue he's been raising. Is he really experienced enough to run the country?

MERKLEY: Absolutely. We're blessed with two candidates on the Democratic side who bring a tremendous amount of experience. But you have to look at the entirety of their record. Bernie Sanders was a tremendous mayor of Burlington. He reshaped the city, reshaped the waterfront. He brought in a minor-league team - baseball team that put that city on a great course of livability.

He proceeded in the House to be the most effective House member out of 430 in offering amendments, amendments targeted to assist the middle class and the families that are struggling in America. He came to the Senate; he forged a bipartisan coalition around a major veterans bill. And he's done that just time and time again. And he's been such a clear voice on these big challenges in our financial system, in our health care system and certainly when it comes to the issue of living-wage jobs.

SIEGEL: In your op-ed page article endorsing Sen. Sanders, you mentioned how impressed you are with his positions on the environment, on the banks, on middle-class economics. You don't mention health care and you don't mention free public college tuition. And I'm just curious, given your experience in the U.S. Senate and having been there for the Affordable Care Act being passed, having been there for the last couple of rounds of what they called the doc fix, when the Senate tried to control reimbursement rates for physicians - do you think the U.S. Senate or the Congress generally is four years away from approving a single-payer health care system?

MERKLEY: No, the challenge I had in my editorial was simply you only get so many inches on the page.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

MERKLEY: And certainly, Bernie Sanders deserves a lot of credit for pushing forward a vision of affordable college education and certainly career technical education as well.

SIEGEL: But are those positions that you, based on your experience of the Senate, that you believe could actually become law in the next president's four-year term?

MERKLEY: Well, we've just seen the state of Oregon essentially make community college free. It's a last-dollar-in strategy on top of what the federal government is already doing. And the point is to lay out of a vision of where we need to get to. Realize that right now students going to college in America face a financial gauntlet that discourages many of them at the time they think of going to college and discourages many more back when they're in junior high, affecting the entire path of their life. That is not an American Dream vision for our nation.

SIEGEL: Well, it's not quite a yes. It's - you're not quite saying yes, I can imagine us within four years going to free public higher education and a single-payer health care system. I don't hear you agreeing...

MERKLEY: No, I think...

SIEGEL: ...With that.

MERKLEY: ...That that vision is out of reach. But the underlying point of laying out a vision is to move the nation in that direction. And each time that Bernie Sanders had laid out a vision, he's been willing to take modest steps in the direction as we go. And so that is important to understand. For example, in the Affordable Care Act, he pushed very hard - I was on the committee - to greatly expand our federally-qualified health centers. Those are the health clinics in our neighborhoods and rural areas and urban areas that are the front-door to affordable health care. And so that was a huge accomplishment doing that. But that's an example of being willing to take an important step that's within reach.

SIEGEL: If Hillary Clinton wins a pledged-delegate majority, should Sen. Sanders endorse her?

MERKLEY: Absolutely - and vice-versa...

SIEGEL: Even if that happens several weeks before the convention.

MERKLEY: Yes, I think that once you have a clear victor in the primary, the two sides need to come together. It's important for whoever wins to reach out. You have two individuals who are, again, very capable. Both of them are a hundred times better than anyone running on the Republican side of the ticket. And to the success of our nation, they need to work together. They must work together. And both sides need to make that happen hand-in-hand.

SIEGEL: Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat of Oregon - first senator to endorse Bernie Sanders for president - thanks for talking with us.

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