Instead of barbs, Oregon's senior U.S. Senator gets a gift at Saturday town hall
With Congressional approval ratings dipping into single digits, $4-a-gallon gas and some within his party calling him a traitor, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden may have been expecting pitchforks and tri-corner hats during last weekend's swing through Oregon.
Instead, he got a gift basketball.
In fact, while kicking off four town halls with a stop in Forest Grove, the most pointed exchange centered on Daylight Savings Time.
'Why do we have to set the clocks back?' asked one woman. 'Just about every time you get used to one time, it becomes another.'
Wyden, a Democrat who's been in Congress since 1981, confessed he hadn't really studied the issue in a while, but after a show of hands revealed that others are ticked by the biennial clock adjustment, said he'd get up to speed.
No Tea Party protest
During the local session (one of four planned in western Oregon over the weekend) Wyden also fielded questions about health care reform, insider trading, federal immigration policy, foreign trade tariffs and a proposal to require all automobiles to come with daylight headlights.
But there was no Tea Party protest, no shouting about 'Obamacare' or birth certificates.
'Wow,' Wyden said at one point during the morning session. 'This is awfully quiet for Washington County.'
Town hall pledge
Making good on a 1995 campaign promise, Wyden visits each of Oregon's 36 counties at least once a year, and his Saturday morning stop in Forest Grove was his 617th town hall since the former Portland congressman moved up to the Senate in 1996.
As usual, he spent as much time listening as talking during his 90 minutes at the Forest Grove Senior and Community Center.
Sam Cone, a retired General Motors employee from Beaverton, said he's concerned about auto safety and would like to see mandatory safety inspections for vehicles and automatic daytime running lights required on all new cars to make them more visible before the sun goes down.
'It's a matter of safety,' he said, 'not only for seniors like me, but also children.'
In response to Cone's question about home foreclosures, Wyden said he supported giving judges the authority to negotiate agreements between responsible homeowners and lenders.
'I don't see any sensible way to turn this around other than for the federal government to pass legislation giving judges the authority to come up with compromises between all the parties,' he said.
Health care questions
Many of the questions and comments centered on health care. Peggy Day of Forest Grove shared her experience watching her two grandsons deal with cystic fibrosis.
She thanked Wyden for his support of President Obama's health care reform bill, noting that it will allow her two grandsons, both in their early 20s, to stay on their parents' policy until they are 26.
But even so, she said, a brand new drug which looks promising would require an $80,000 co-pay for each grandson.
Janice Scruggs, also of Forest Grove, said she worries that she won't be able to keep up the rising cost of medication for her husband, who suffers from dementia.
'This is another area where a lot of people fall between the cracks,' Wyden said, noting that Medicare, the federal program that provides health care for senior citizens, is barred from negotiating for bulk discounts.
'It's crazy,' Wyden said. 'No one would go to Costco and buy toilet paper one roll at a time. I strongly favor lifting that restriction so that Medicare can bargain the cost of prescription medicines.'
In recent weeks, Wyden has come under attack for co-sponsoring a Medicare reform bill with Rep. Paul Ryan, the conservative Wisconsin Republican who last year proposed a draconian federal budget that would have slashed funding to popular programs. The bill passed the House but was rejected by the Senate.
As Charles Pope of The Oregonian wrote on Sunday: 'Wyden is in an uncomfortable place these days. Republicans discuss him with satisfied surprise while many Democrats bounce between incredulous and angry. The harshest assessments suggest he is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.'
Wyden wasn't questioned about the bill on Saturday, but alluded to it while fielding a query from Charlotte Rollier.
Rollier said she found it hard to keep up with federal issues and wondered about the best way to get factual information in an era of hyper partisan polarization.
Wyden suggested that Rollier, and everyone else at the town hall, ask every candidate running for every office to provide an example of an issue they're working on that is outside their comfort zone and party platform.
'We have to find a way to bring people together,' he said. 'That's what I'm trying to do with Medicare and I have the welts on my back to prove it. One of the reasons I decided to get in the middle of this Medicare street fight was to lower the decibel level, bring people together and try to protect our seniors.'
Frustrated by criticism
Wyden, who voted against Ryan's budget bill last year, said he's frustrated by criticism from people who link the two topics.
'How are we going to solve problems if we say we're not going to work with anyone you voted against?' he asked. 'That's absurd.'
But Wyden's outrage went unmatched by the audience and the event was nothing like the town halls of 2010, when Tea Party activists heckled incumbents from coast to coast.
In fact, the Washington County crowd was so friendly that the last member to address him offered a present.
Virginia Tavera of Forest Grove told the senator that she'd run into him at an airport last summer and couldn't figure out why he looked familiar.
'I came over and asked you if you were a professional basketball player,' she recalled. 'You said, 'No, I'm a U.S. Senator.' I was so embarrassed.'
The 6-foot-4 Wyden, who did attend the University of California Santa Barbara on a basketball scholarship, laughed at Tavera's apology and said he took no offense.
Still, he eagerly accepted her gift of contrition: a brand-new basketball.
'You know,' said Wyden, who is as razor thin now as he was in college, 'at one point I thought I might be able to play in the NBA, which was just ridiculous. I was too small, but I made up for it by being slow.'
And with that, he thanked the crowd and headed out to Astoria, where he was scheduled to conduct Town Hall number 618.