Merkley discusses goals for 2010 at Ashland town hall

Fielding a range of sympathetic queries on the health care plan, regulation of the banking industry and shrinking our carbon output, Sen. Jeff Merkley, at a Southern Oregon University town hall meeting Thursday, predicted all will come into law this year.

However, the freshman Democrat cautioned the emerging health care plan may have constitutional problems, including the requirement for all citizens to participate in some form of coverage.

The crowd of 75 people had no questions on the Iraq or Afganistan wars, but, in a later news conference, Merkley noted, “I have tremendous questions” on increased involvement in Afghanistan.

“I've been meeting with State Department officials, trying to get to the heart of our goals there,” said Merkley, adding that the U.S. involvement “should have a small focus and I'm not convinced we have that.”

Merkley expressed concern that, along with U.S. troops, privately paid security personnel, such as Blackwater (now called Xe) also “go in without control. It's gone off track and we need to get this under control. There is so much to be investigated in this area.”

Merkley said the look of the final health care plan is yet to be known, but will include many progressive, but unheralded measures, such as those emphasizing wellness, tobacco cessation, support for local health care clinics and breast feeding for working mothers.

Although “I fought hard for the public option and lost,” Merkley said the plan's big achievements are the end to insurance refusal based on preexisting conditions and “dumping” of insured persons upon illness or accident.

Merkley also objected to some states getting preferential treatment in the health care bill, in order to secure swing votes in the Senate and added, “it should work the same in every state because we're all in this together.”

The requirement for mandatory coverage in the plan is necessary, he said, because “if the healthy stay out of the pool, it would raise the cost (for everyone in it) and it would go out of business.”

In contrast to the booing Merkley got from health care plan opponents in Roseburg Tuesday, Merkley received thanks for his work on the plan from many who were chosen by lottery to go to the microphone. Only one opponent shouted from the audience, saying the lottery was rigged, but he was shouted down by others, who denied it.

A member of the Senate Banking Committee, Merkley said a “crackdown” on the financial industries is next on the agenda after health care, in order to prevent a repeat of the “cascade of risk” created by the “completely unregulated” system of derivatives.

Merkley said that, in committee, he was the lone Democrat opponent of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke – “a very intelligent and very nice guy…he was at the table (of the Council of Economic Advisors) when derivatives exploded (and) when the seeds of economic disaster were sown.”

The senator said he would work to end loan prepayment penalties and bring reform “that doesn't maximize profits for Wall Street but helps families be successful…Let's make banks boring again.”

Half of Americans don't believe global warming is human-caused, said Merkley, as he enumerated the contrary evidence of shrinking glaciers, warming oceans, dying reefs and increasing extinctions.

“The U.S. has been away from the table (of international climate talks) for a long time and I'm glad to see the Obama administration back at it,” he said, adding that his goal is a 20 percent carbon dioxide reduction by 2020, which is an “easy” 1 percent a year.

“Most House members believe that's too aggressive, but it's way below what we can do,” he said. “It's not a hard goal.”

Several students expressed concern about graduating from college with high debt loads – and Merkley said he's working on the expansion of Pell Grants and other grants and connecting students with lower cost loans that cut out middlemen. Capping tuition, he added, is not an option, as tuition levels are the choice of the individual school.

Merkley bemoaned the “extraordinary cost” of higher education, noting it's creating the first generation to get less education than the one before it – and endangering the quality of the U.S. economy and society down the road.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland.

*Note: The Daily Tidings was tweeting live from Thursday morning's town hall meeting. To view those tweets, enter the hashtag #Merkley into a Twitter search function.

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