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Oregon's senators in Scappoose this week

Merkley holds town hall at school; Wyden speaking Saturday


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Scappoose School District Superintendent Stephen Jupe, left, addresses United States Sen. Jeff Merkley, right, at Merkley's town hall meeting at Scappoose High School on Wednesday, Jan. 22.Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., fielded questions from students and adults alike at a town hall meeting in the Scappoose High School gymnasium Wednesday, Jan. 22.

Merkley was asked about controversial topics ranging from the state debate over the legal status of marijuana to the fraught political atmosphere in the United States Congress, in which he serves as one of Oregon’s two senators.

“A bunch of us are pretty disgusted with what’s happened in Washington,” said Sandy Lonsdale of Bend. “It seems like the special interests have pretty much taken over. My question is, what can we do as Oregonians to try to break this logjam and get more compromise and working together in both houses of Congress?”

Merkley responded by highlighting his work on reforming procedural tools in Congress, especially the filibuster in the Senate, which allows a senator or group of senators to prevent a vote unless 60 senators vote for cloture.

Democrats in the Senate pushed through a change to Senate rules that effectively eliminated the use of the filibuster for most presidential nominees, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., grew frustrated with Republicans not allowing a confirmation vote on certain federal appointees.

Merkley has been one of the leading proponents of filibuster reform in the Senate, and he said he wants to go further in limiting the use of the filibuster.

“On legislation, we have a long way to go,” Merkley said. “Ultimately, what I’m arguing for is a ‘talking filibuster’ — that if you’re going to say that you need more debate before you make a decision, you actually have to be on the floor debating.”

The theme of congressional inaction was one that kept resurfacing throughout the town hall meeting. A couple of Scappoose High students asked questions about last year’s partial government shutdown, which took place through the first half of October after the two houses of Congress failed to agree on a measure to keep the federal government funded.

Sandra Hales, whose father Robert was a Scappoose Rural Fire District volunteer firefighter until his death in 2008, said her family was affected by the temporary closure of memorials to service personnel who have died in the line of duty during the shutdown.

“When the government shut down, we weren’t allowed to go to any of the memorial sites,” Hales said. “We weren’t allowed to do pretty much anything that had to do with that.”

Hales concluded, “I wanted to know, as a student, as a citizen of the United States, why it is we can’t change that. Why can’t we stop them from doing things like shutting the government down because they can’t compromise?”

Merkley blamed the shutdown on partisan differences between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democrat-led Senate, as well as legislative tools like the filibuster.

“Essentially, it’s through the people you elect,” Merkley told Hales. “You elect folks, and you are investing in their opinions or their passions or their logic.”

Merkley encouraged audience members to contact their elected officials to express their thoughts on issues that matter to them.

Lisa Maloney, a member of the Scappoose School District board of directors, made her own disagreements with Merkley plain when she addressed him at the town hall.

Maloney prefaced her question by noting Wednesday was the 41st anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.

“There are quite a number of students that aren’t here today because we have, in our country, aborted more than 50 million children through abortion. So you have classmates that aren’t here today,” Maloney told students.

Merkley, although Maloney did not mention it, is a supporter of abortion rights.

Maloney then said she is concerned about the way the federal government is collecting tax revenue and spending those dollars.

“All of us that have jobs, you’re taking our money, and you’re putting it somewhere else,” Maloney said. “And what’s happened is the young people that are here, they’re more than $17 trillion in the hole. How are they going to pay for it? They didn’t even get to vote for it. But yet we’re sticking them with the bill.”

After waiting for applause in the room to subside, Merkley responded, “In the year 2000, we were headed toward a zero deficit, actually running a ... surplus.”

Military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and the financial crisis have caused spending and the national debt to mount since then, Merkley continued. He added that the federal budget deficit has shrunk over the past few years as Congress and the White House have moved to reduce spending.

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks to Columbia County commissioners and other local officials before holding a town hall meeting at Scappoose High School on Wednesday, Jan. 22.On marijuana, Merkley was careful not to take a position for or against legalization, although he said Oregonians are likely to have an initiative to legalize marijuana on the ballot this November. The Oregon Senate is considering a legislative proposal to refer such an initiative to voters.

“This is really a state conversation,” said Merkley, who told the Spotlight after the meeting that Congress is waiting to see what happens in Colorado, Washington and any other states that legalize marijuana before taking action of its own.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, which classifies it as a controlled substance with no medical applications, although Merkley said the federal government has not made enforcement a priority in states like Oregon that have laws allowing medical marijuana.

Merkley also met with Columbia County elected officials and representatives from Portland Community College in a conference room at Scappoose High before the town hall meeting. He told them he will look into issues of local concern in Columbia County, such as the safety of tank cars used in crude oil trains and the federal government’s rental of beds at the Columbia County Jail.

On Saturday, Oregon’s senior senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, will hold a town hall meeting of his own at Scappoose City Hall. That meeting is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m.