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Merkley focuses work on economy

Senate re-election bid pushes for funds to fix roads, bridges


Democrat Jeff Merkley says he will continue to pursue economic issues — and prod the U.S. Senate to act on them — if he is elected to a second term.

Among the examples, he says, are his successful efforts in 2010 to secure greater regulation of financial markets and provide protection for consumers, and his support of a higher federal minimum wage, refinancing of pre-2010 student loans and tying new loans to lower interest rates.

“Our emphasis has been to make our economy work better for ordinary Americans,” he said during an Oct. 8 editorial board meeting of the Portland Tribune/Pamplin Media Group.Merkley

Merkley's campaign drew a Portland visit last week from Vice President Joe Biden, who praised Merkley as someone who “gets it” on those issues.

Merkley is the son of a millwright who moved from Southern Oregon to Portland, and Biden likened the family situation to his own. Biden's father was a car salesman in Scranton, Pa.

Like Biden, Merkley says middle-class Americans are failing to recoup their share of the wealth lost during the economic downturn and recovered more by higher-income households.

Merkley also has benefited from two visits by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who shares a populist economic outlook.

Merkley says Congress should do more to finance badly needed public works projects. He has secured approval this year of lower-cost financing for community water and sewer projects, and loans for energy-efficiency projects for rural electric cooperatives.

He also wants federal grants to encourage schools to re-establish vocational and technical training, modeled on Oregon's 2011 state legislation that has extended to more than 200 schools.

Merkley also voted for the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 national health care overhaul that Monica Wehby wants to change. While the law has extended coverage and contributed to restraining increases in medical costs, Merkley says Congress ought to take more steps to safeguard Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people older than 65 and for some with disabilities.

Among them, he says, are training for more health professionals, a continued shift from fee-for-service to less expensive care, and allowing federal negotiation of drug prices.

While changes in Senate filibuster rules appear to be a more obscure issue, Merkley adds, the invoking of unlimited debate by the Republican minority has paralyzed the Senate because it cannot act on other issues.

“It isn’t just that issues are not being addressed; it’s also causing cynicism among our youth,” Merkley says. “The Oregon Legislature works 10 times better than the U.S. Senate or House,” says Merkley, who was Oregon House speaker before he unseated two-term Republican Gordon Smith in 2008.

Merkley’s effort resulted last year in the Senate changing its rules to allow up-or-down votes on presidential appointees, other than Supreme Court justices, by a simple majority of 51 instead of 60. The change does not apply to legislation.

It also drew a personal rebuke by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who campaigned recently in Oregon for Wehby, Merkley’s GOP opponent and a physician from Portland making her first bid for public office.

But Merkley says he pushed for the change after McCain himself broke an unwritten agreement not to allow extended filibusters on presidential nominations.

“We’ve had two legislative battles; I’ve won both, and he’s not happy about that,” Merkley says.

The other was a 2012 Senate vote on an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, although under a new security agreement with Afghanistan's new president, U.S. and allied forces can stay beyond a previous deadline of Dec. 31.

Merkley visited Afghanistan in 2010, when he says tribal officials questioned the worth of the national government then led by Hamid Karzai.

Merkley says he supports U.S. efforts against Islamic State extremists through use of airpower and alliances with the Kurds, Iraqi forces and other potential allies in the region.

“What we should not do is have (U.S.) boots on the ground,” he says. “ISIS wants a war with the West."

Political stances

Merkley has consistently led Wehby in independent public opinion surveys, and has raised far more for the campaign, although Wehby has until Wednesday to file her latest numbers.

They have only one scheduled joint appearance Tuesday night on Medford television station KOBI. They have gone back and forth on others, but there has been no agreement.

Merkley rebuts criticisms by Wehby that he is too far to the left of the political spectrum and too closely tied with Democrats. He says he and Oregon’s other senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, vote similarly, except on a few issues.

Merkley has been more outspoken than Wyden in questioning trade agreements, though both have been critical of federal tax breaks for companies with business operations outside the United States.

Wehby points to Merkley’s 2011 rating by National Journal as the most liberal senator, tied with Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Wyden was 17th. But in 2012, Wyden was 34th and Merkley 38th; in 2013, Merkley was 34th and Wyden 35th.

Under ratings by the OpenCongress website, Merkley voted with his party 88.9 percent in 2013, and 91.9 percent so far in 2014; Wyden, 91.5 percent and 93.8 percent.

Merkley says Wehby has drawn many of her policy positions, sometimes word for word, from national Republican sources and Kansas industrialists Charles and David Koch.

"Their values are out of sync with Oregon values," he says.

Merkley sits on four Senate committees: Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Environment and Public Works; Budget, and Appropriations, its first Oregon member since Republican Mark Hatfield — who Merkley was a student intern for in 1976 — retired in 1996.

“The high-profile things we disagree on are about one-third at most,” he says. “The other two-thirds, you can find people to partner with to get things done.”

Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby will appear Thursday before the editorial board of the Portland Tribune/Pamplin Media Group.

pwong@PamplinMedia.com

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