Merkley gets an earful in county visit

<I>Chuck Anderson/Chieftain</I><BR>Sen. Merkley answers a constituent's question.

It was Democrat Jeff Merkley's first foray into Wallowa County since his election to the U.S. Senate in November. He never campaigned here and Wallowans had voted 3,221 to 939 for Gordon Smith, his Republican opponent.

The junior senator had promised to visit every Oregon county each year. This was the tail end of the August Congressional recess and Merkley was going to the last few counties on his itinerary.

At dusk on Thursday, Sept. 3, more than 200 streamed into Cloverleaf Hall at the county fairgrounds.

Many gave it to Merkley with both barrels, a contrast to the spirited but respectful exchange that a week earlier had greeted veteran Sen. Ron Wyden, also a Democrat but a frequent visitor.

But Merkley took it in stride. He had planned to answer questions for an hour. After an hour and 10 minutes, he asked the crowd: "Do you want to keep going?" The answer was in the affirmative, and he spoke for an hour-and-a-half, then met with constituents individually for nearly another hour.

Health care dominated both town hall meetings, but questions and audience comments were much more pointed as locals tested the freshman senator. Boos and barbs, absent from the Wyden visit, met Merkley several times.

Although it was reported otherwise by other media outlets, Merkley promoted a rival to a Wyden's health-care reform bill. He touted the Affordable Health Choices Act, the highly visible proposal making its way through Senate committees.

The bill is a departure from the Healthy Americans Act, co-authored by Wyden and supported by 15 senators from both parties. Wyden last week said his is the only current plan that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, won't cost trillions of dollars.

Both are different still from President Barack Obama's own proposal, which has yet to be crafted as legislation.

Versed in the Affordable Health Choices bill, Merkley repeatedly cited that it maintains one's choice of doctors and insurance plans and would reduce costs for families and employers while ensuring quality of care.

An audience member asked why health care is being addressed before employment.

""The best thing we can do is to create jobs," Merkley responded. "Employment goes up and down, but a lot of jobs don't provide health care. Employers that keep health care keep employees."

Merkley sought to quell a belief, often prompted by conservative talk-show hosts, that the president plans to organize some sort of domestic armed force. The conversation comes from a quote uttered during the Obama campaign last year, and was cited by one questioner.

"He was referring to Americorps," the national umbrella of volunteer organizations, Merkley said. The comment was met by much head shaking and boos.

Another attendee asked about opting out of a plan.

"I don't have health insurance and I don't want it," he said. "If it it mandatory to have it, it infringes on my liberty."

Merkley said lower premiums must involve a larger pool. "For an insurance company to accept all, you have to include a broad cross-section," Merkley said, adding that there would be a financial penalty to anyone who doesn't participate.

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