During annual town hall visit

by: HOLLY M. GILL - Sen. Jeff Merkley, right, poses for a photo with 6-year-old Jacob Turo, and Scott Turo, left.Despite the short notice for Sen. Jeff Merkley's Jan. 4 town hall, about 55 people turned out for the Saturday morning meeting.

High on Merkley's agenda is restoration of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which was enacted in 2008, under the George W. Bush administration, to assist people who have been unable to find work.

"The theory is, the higher unemployment, the more difficult it is to find a job," said Merkley, who considers it a necessary "self-expiring bridge program."

The program, which, in Oregon, extended the state's 26-week unemployment compensation by another 37 weeks, expired on Dec. 28, when Congress was on break.

"I'm pushing for us to restore this program," said Merkley, noting that about 20,000 Oregon families lost funding when it expired. "Right here, we're in one of the highest unemployment counties in the country."

by: HOLLY M. GILL - Sen. Jeff Merkley listens to Carol Leone, right, while Louise Muir, center, awaits her turn at the Jan. 4 town hall at the COCC Madras campus.Quality education was another key factor for Merkley's "middle class agenda."

"A big part is replacing No Child Left Behind," he said, referring to the legislation passed in 2001, which required states to set and test for "one high, challenging standard."

The focus has been on improving two areas — reading and math — diminishing other areas. "Give us more flexibility to run our schools," he said, suggesting that schools once again offer shop classes.

Merkley wants to make college more affordable by changing the student loan interest rate formula. "It still makes sense to push for low-interest federal loans," he said, noting that he has also introduced the "Pay It Forward" act, to change the way college is funded.

Under his plan, students would agree to repay with a set amount after they obtain employment, "say a 2 percent slice of your future income," he said.

"We need to have an aspirational society," said Merkley, who was the first person in his family to go to college. "Here in America, you can do just about anything if you apply yourself."

Speaking about the recent announcement that the Warm Springs Reservation will be one of the state's test sites for unmanned aerial vehicles, Merkley said that the nonmilitary application of UAVs "has the potential to bring significant investment" to the region.

The applications will include everything "from mapping pine beetle infestations ... to spotting marijuana being grown in the woods," he said.

Responding to a question about the national debt, Merkley explained that the annual change in the deficit becomes either an addition to the debt, or a reduction in the debt. Every year since 2001, the deficit has added to the debt.

"In the year 2000, I was thrilled we were going to be able to pay off our debt," he said, recalling that instead, the U.S. went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, implemented Medicare Part D, and dealt with predatory mortgages.

The deficit reached a high of about $1.4 trillion in 2009, and, on a positive note, is now roughly half of that, he pointed out, but the U.S. debt exceeded $17 trillion at the end of 2013.

"We've cut (the deficit) in half, but we need to keep moving forward," he said.

Asked about a report that ranked him as the most liberal senator in America, Merkley said that he believes in setting aside labels.

"Sen. (Mark) Hatfield was my political mentor," said Merkley, who interned for the Republican senator in the 1970s, and believes in working on legislation in a bipartisan manner.

"Virtually everything I do, I'm reaching out and finding partners across the aisle," he said.

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