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Merkley mixes policy, politics, personal


TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley spoke at his 18th town hall meeting of 2016 Saturday at Milwaukie High School. Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba watched in the background.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley mixed policy, politics — and occasionally a personal or philosophical comment — during a town hall meeting Saturday in the commons at Milwaukie High School.

As he enters his eighth year, the Oregon Democrat said few of his Senate colleagues conduct such meetings in their home states, but Merkley has held 270. Merkley and fellow Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden schedule a meeting annually in each of Oregon’s 36 counties.

“We need a real dialogue about what people are facing,” Merkley told more than 100 people in the audience at his 18th such meeting of 2016. “Too many of my colleagues come from a bubble and live in a bubble — and they need to hear from you.”

Asked to forecast the outcome of the 2016 elections, Merkley said, “I’d love to know that answer.”

But he said there is a marked difference between the Senate he first came to know 40 years ago, when he was a student intern for Republican Mark Hatfield, and the Senate of today.

Merkley said senators in 1976 debated legislation, offered amendments and voted on bills.

“They weren’t done for television or campaigns — and I loved that Senate. We have lost that,” said Merkley, who now holds Hatfield’s old seat. “Instead what we have is what is referred to as the perpetual campaign.”

As one of Oregon's 13 superdelegates to this year's Democratic National Convention — seven elected officials and six party leaders among the state's 74 delegates — Merkley has not endorsed either former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Wyden and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader have endorsed Clinton.)

Merkley and Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio were the only members of Oregon's congressional delegation to oppose fast-track negotiating authority last year for the 12-nation trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Merkley said it's up to the public, not him, to influence others in Congress, which can take only an up-or-down vote on it.

"I will make my arguments on the floor of the Senate and to my colleagues when they ask me," he said. "But it is really the citizens who are going to have to carry that conversation."

Local to global

The bulk of questions during the hour-long meeting dealt with issues ranging from local to global.

Merkley, Wyden and Blumenauer have signed requests to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in connection with Portland testing that has turned up elevated levels of airborne toxic metals near two glass companies.

“We’ve asked these federal agencies to assist” in determining whether there are regulatory loopholes and if screening is available for health risks from exposure.

Merkley also has sponsored legislation to halt new fossil-fuel leases on federal lands, and end leases that are not producing, to slow the buildup of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

“A major challenge we have is to pivot off the use of fossil fuels,” he said. “We cannot keep pulling out coal, oil and natural gas for 50 years into the future.”

While the bill itself may be a long shot in a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers, the Obama administration did announce a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands in mid-January.

Merkley also wants future income as the basis for repayment of student tuition — with a maximum of 10 percent of discretionary income — rather than loans based on market-rate interest that drive up student debt. (Some federal direct loans carry lower rates, but Merkley has argued that Congress continues to peg rates too high.)

“I hope we will have enough pushback from students and families,” he said. “I think if more of my colleagues would have town halls and ask that question, we could get that changed. I’m going to keep pushing on that.”

Asked about the problems military veterans continue to encounter in obtaining services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Merkley said they stem from many factors: A bureaucracy slow to change, a backlog of patients only slowly being reduced, increased numbers eligible for benefits, and a surge of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars requiring care.

But Merkley added there is one factor facing all health care services, not just the VA.

“Many of our health-care practitioners are baby boomers — and they are retiring — while the rest of us who are baby boomers need more health care than we did 10 years ago,” said Merkley, who is 60.

“So you have a big increase in demand and a big drop in the supply of practitioners that is driving up costs and also making it hard to get employment.”

California lure?

Merkley’s wife, Mary Sorteberg, is a nurse — and Merkley’s final questioner at the Milwaukie High School town hall, senior Tieara Norman, also says she wants to become a nurse.

But when Norman said she was planned to attend college in California, Merkley asked why.

“The weather is better,” Norman said.

Norman, however, plans to attend on a track scholarship. She is the 2015 Youth Female Field Athlete of the Year, as named by Oregon USA Track and Field. Her specialties are the long jump and 100- and 400-meter hurdles.

Merkley wished her well and said he hopes she will return to Oregon to make her career.

He recounted a recent round of college visits he made with his own daughter, Brynne, during the rainy season.

As the audience laughed, Merkley said her response was: “Dad, I think I am a California girl.”

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