>The U.S. Senator talks health care, the economy and Cogentrix at the town hall meeting
News Editor
   Fulfilling a campaign promise he made several years ago, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden made an appearance at the Jefferson County Fire Hall Monday to conduct a town hall meeting with local residents.
   For an hour and a half, Wyden listened to citizens concerns on a wide range of topics, among them health care, Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, free trade and the economy.
   Wyden could barely introduce him before a man asked, to roaring laughter, "How do you feel about Cogentrix?"
   "What a surprise," said Wyden, who also met with several local business owners and employees at Bright Wood earlier in the day.
   "The first thing you need to do is have people get their questions answered," said Wyden, referring to the application review process. "Until then I'm not going to prejudge this."
   It was not the last time Wyden was pushed to stake out a position on the local issue, but most of the questions asked of the Oregon Democrat regarded issues related to the state at a federal level.
   A resounding concern voiced from the audience was the economy and Oregon's recession. Wyden told the more than 100 attendees that he wasn't in favor of certain elements in the Bush Administration's proposed stimulus package but a compromise on many of the fine points was necessary to get one passed when Congress resumes next week.
   He cited three bills he sponsored as means to get Oregon's slumping economy off the ground and assured the audience that he wouldn't support tax increases.
   "Raising taxes in the United States Senate is about as popular as the Bowl Championship Series," Wyden said.
   Wyden was asked about his opinion on Enron. He responded, "Enron was sinking like the Titanic and the upper level management stayed at the top protecting themselves while the rest of the ship sank ... they left everybody else locked in the boiler room."
   Wyden added to the energy discussion that he opposed the "deregulation push" that Enron has aggressively pursued and that Oregon is scheduled to implement later this year.
   Among many health care topics raised, Wyden told the Jefferson County crowd that he would fight to keep affordable prescription drugs available to senior citizens.
   "I've been asked, `Ron, can America afford senior citizens prescription drug protection?' And my answer is America can't afford not to," he said.
   He also said later that he would try to resume "the health care discussion" in the Senate to attempt to get "everybody under the tent for the basics."
   "I'm putting my head into the shark's mouth -- I can tell you that," Wyden said.
   The matter of physician-assisted suicide was also raised. Wyden, who has publicly expressed his reservations about the unique Oregon law, has fought tooth and nail to preserve the will of the state's voters.
   Last year, Wyden filibustered on the Senate floor and successfully stopped an amendment tied to an unrelated economic bill that would have nullified the Oregon law. But today, the Oregon law faces a new threat as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has attempted legal maneuvers to outlaw the practice.
   "Mr. Ashcroft said there is a skinny guy holding up the process so we are going to forget the democratic process and rewrite the rules ourselves," Wyden said.
   "If Oregon beats John Ashcroft I believe the same people in Congress that have tried to get rid of (physician-assisted suicide) will come out and try to do it again and I will return to my post."
   Many Madras High School students attended the noon meeting. Wyden addressed several of the concerns they raised, which ranged from the cost of tuition to minority scholarships and free trade.
   Wyden told the audience he favored free trade agreements, including NAFTA and the yet-to-be implemented Western Hemisphere Free Trade Agreement. He said countries trading with each other need to "get to the floor level" when it comes to tariffs and that the key for Americans staying competitive in the global economy was becoming more productive.
   "Today, if you live in Madras you're not just competing with people from San Francisco and Denver, you're competing with people from all over the world," he said.
   Wyden was asked about his opinion on alternative energy. He said America was too dependent on foreign oil which, given the events of Sept. 11, prove that that dependence is a national security issue as well.
   Wyden then led the discussion into the issue of drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge of Alaska.
   "From an environmental standpoint, my opinion is that the prospect for environmental damage outweighs the prospect of getting a significant amount of oil," he said.
   Furthermore, Wyden said the oil companies have succeeded in getting export laws changed so that "it's possible for them to sell it to Asia at a discount and stick the prices to Oregon, Washington and California."
   "They want to use this wildlife refuge to keep us dependent on oil," he said.
   Wyden briefly referred to the hot local issue of the Migrant Head Start program in Jefferson County but stopped short of taking a position on the matter.
   Wyden said he and his assistant in his Bend office would like to offer themselves to assist both sides of the issue. "We'd like to see if something can be developed to help all the youngsters in Madras in a cost-effective way," he said.
   Wyden wrapped up his short stay in Madras by posing for a picture with Madras High School Students.
   But before greeting the youngsters, Wyden said he has been told, "I always thought I had to spend $1,000 to see a U.S. Senator."
   "I hope you'll walk out of here and say this is the way a democracy is supposed to work," Wyden said. "The questions I've heard in the last hour and a half make me feel good about Madras."
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