Merkley stands up for stimulus

Phillip W Houk, mayor of Pendleton, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore, right, listen to presentations made during the Blue Mountain Renewable Energy Project meeting Thursday afternoon in BMCC's Pioneer Hall. <BR><I>Staff Photo by Brenna E. Chapman </i>

Jeff Merkley defended the federal stimulus package during his own packaged visit Thursday to Pendleton.

"The best thing that came out of it is jobs," he said during an interview between meetings. It includes job creation and maintains existing jobs, he noted.

The junior U.S. senator from Oregon said the stimulus will put money in the hands of taxpayers, create much-needed infrastructure and protect forests.

The Democrat from Portland was on a low-key information-gathering trip, his second to this part of Eastern Oregon since winning the U.S. Senate seat in November.

Merkley ate lunch with members of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, watched a presentation at Blue Mountain Community College on the college's push to start a renewable energy program and then met - for the first time - Oregon's U.S. Rep. Greg Walden. Together they listened to concerns from Pendleton business leaders, but Merkley left the meeting early to hold back-to-back media interviews. The senator then was off for another meeting.

Merkley, 52, said he enjoys fitting into his new role as senator. He said in some ways he has come full circle. As a 19-year-old student he took a year off from Stanford University to serve as an intern for Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon in Washington, D.C., and even waited tables and held other desk jobs there. That set his course, he said. While he attended college to be an engineer, he said he had to decide between designing bridges and designing policy.

His five terms in the Oregon House of Representatives, where he rose to the top job as speaker, laid the foundation for his understanding of the legislative process.

Republicans have charged the lawmaking process of the stimulus package, however, was flawed. The majority Democrats put the bill together behind closed doors, they said.

Merkley argued this was a bipartisan product in many ways, with Democrats giving Republicans key concessions. For example, Republicans wanted to encourage home buying, so there is an $8,000 tax credit to new home buyers.

Even so, the House and the Senate essentially passed the bill along party lines. That's not surprising, Merkley, said, because it's politics. The votes allows Republicans to distance themselves from the failed policies of the previous administration, he said.

Partisan or not, Merkley also said there was plenty in the bill that will help the U.S. in this recession, including money for developing jobs in renewable energy. That's the right direction, he said, because it means America will move away from its vast dependence on foreign oil.

The bill also has good news for Oregon, Merkley said, because it provides money to keep forests healthy from fire and infestation.

The bill also has about $50 billion in tax credits. Critics have argued that's a failed method to stimulate spending because during recessions people tend to save, not spend.

But Merkley said some economic experts argue that's the case when people get money in a lump sum, such as happened in the round of stimulus checks American received last year. This package, however, will reduce state income taxes, he said, noting that when people receive money in modest increments, they tend to spend it.

Of course, he said, no one really knows how well the stimulus will work. It could be another six to 12 months before there is any benefit, he said. And this won't be the end of big spending in an effort to turn around the economy.

For example, on Wednesday, President Barack Obama unveiled a $75 billion relief plan for millions of struggling homeowners. Merkley said he pushed the Obama administration to create a program for mortgage relief between $50 billion and $100 billion.

"I worked incredibly hard to get the administration to commit to mortgage relief," he said.

Merkley's also has rail travel on his radar, much like Ron Wyden, the senior Democratic senator from Oregon. While the Amtrak Pioneer hasn't run in Eastern Oregon for about 12 years, Merkley said there are real advantages to rail. He said it is so much more cost effective than commuter airlines and is less polluting than autos.

The stimulus package includes $8 billion for high-speed rail corridors, including one from Seattle to Portland to Eugene.

Merkley hasn't forgotten about setting up a field office in Eastern Oregon. He said staff are in the process of interviewing possible field managers. Asked if the field office will be in in Pendleton, Hermiston or La Grande, the senator answered quickly.

"Yes," he said jokingly, "one of those."

Seriously, he said he wants to make sure an Eastern Oregon office will provide maximum effort. It may not make sense, he said, to have an office in La Grande, which already is home to field offices for Wyden and Walden. Merkley said it may make more sense to set up a field office in a community that doesn't have that kind of political presence.

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