Facing reelection in November and with a number of Republicans champing at the bit to challenge the first-term senator, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) made a stop at Bend's Central Oregon Community College last Saturday for a town hall. It is all part of his 36-county tour around Oregon.
Although Stanford and Princeton, where Merkley received his education, are better known for understanding the business end of a computer than a lasso, the junior senator was dressed Kitzhaber-casual in jeans, cowboy boots and an open collar blue dress shirt. He stepped out from behind a podium to address his priorities for the new year. At the top of the list: re-energizing unemployment benefits and reforming filibuster laws. After ticking off his bucket list of legislative priorities, Merkley accepted a few questions from the audience—and even though the group was friendly, questions were chosen by pulling numbers from a bag, raffle style.
Throughout the town hall, Merkley reiterated his support for emergency unemployment benefits, and said they would have an "immediate effect" on the economy in terms of money spent at gas stations, grocery stores and elsewhere.
Last month, Congress let long-term unemployment insurance benefits run out. There is, however, a $6.4 billion plan to extend benefits for another three months—wholly backed by all 55 Democrats—but as of press time Congress had yet to vote. The issue has become distinctly partisan as Democrats argue such benefits would boost the economy, while Republicans insist the program would merely disincentivize future job searches.
Merkley, also a long time supporter of filibuster reform, reaffirmed his commitment to bring about meaningful change. In November, Merkley championed a rule change that that ended the filibuster for executive branch nominations and non-Supreme Court judges. He continues to work for his "talking filibuster" proposal that requires actual debate. "There's still plenty of room for deliberation," he said Saturday, speaking to detractors.
Additionally, Merkley promised, he would fight for increased infrastructure spending, skilled labor classes and reducing the rising cost of higher education.
"We should be investing a lot more in infrastructure and nurturing manufacturing," Merkley said, before revealing that the U.S. spends a paltry 2 percent of its gross domestic product on necessities like transit systems. He then pointed to Europe, which spends 5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, and China, which spends nearly 10 percent, as signs that America is being left behind.
"This is an area that creates jobs in the short term," Merkley said, before turning to manufacturing.
"We are more dependent on manufacturing than any other state in the union."
The reason, according to Merkley, is Oregon's chip industry. Mostly located in Portland and colloquially referred to as the Silicon Forest, the area is home to Intel and Hewlett-Packard among others. To better prepare future workers, Merkley said, the state's schools should offer more specialized preparatory classes.
"During no child left behind, we left shop classes behind," he added.
The junior senator then highlighted his support for the now-famous Portland State University "Pay it Forward" plan to reduce the burden of student loans. Rather than pay for school upfront, students would agree to a small deduction of their future salary for a relatively long time. According to the Oregonion, one report estimated education repayments could take 24 years with a 3 percent payroll deduction. The idea has been popular as it would encourage more students to apply for and attend college, despite their economic circumstances.
"The current model is crushing the aspirations of our students," said Merkley, who continues to work toward a federal pilot program.