Jeff Merkley, Oregon's junior U.S. senator, told a Medford audience Friday that the United States must increase its investment both in education and infrastructure to avoid losing ground in the global economy.

Jeff Merkley, Oregon's junior U.S. senator, told a Medford audience Friday that the United States must increase its investment both in education and infrastructure to avoid losing ground in the global economy.

In a talk to the Medford Rogue Rotary Club, Merkley said one way to jump-start those efforts would be to stop spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually in the Middle East, both in waging war and buying oil.

Noting that the U.S. is spending $120 billion annually in Iraq, Merkley asked, to applause from the audience, "What would happen if we brought our sons and daughters home and invested it instead in America?"

Merkley, who was elected to the Senate in 2008 after serving in the state Legislature for 10 years, said education, particularly in the fields of science and technology, is critical to the country's success.

But he noted educational efforts are lagging, with the U.S. providing the shortest school year of all developed nations.

"This is the first generation in which our children are not getting as much education as we received," he said.

He said schools should be offering two tracks for students to follow, with some pursuing higher education and some given skills in school to fill manufacturing jobs that many companies now find difficult to fill. He said schools should be encouraged to restart or bolster shop classes that teach students hands-on skills.

"We need kids to understand there are two viable paths after graduation," Merkley said.

And the entire country needs to understand that we are in danger of losing our economic leadership role in the world, he said.

He noted that when he visited China 14 years ago, the streets were clogged with bicycles. On a recent trip to China, he rode a bullet train at 200 mph as he moved between cities.

Merkley said China is investing 10 percent of its gross domestic product in infrastructure. Europe is investing 5 percent, while the U.S. is investing 2 percent, he said.

Even as those investments fall short in this country, the U.S. is spending $1 billion a day on Middle East oil, he said. He praised efforts to shift away from that dependence, including the conversion of long-haul freight trucks from diesel to natural gas.

Earlier in the day, he visited a liquefied natural gas station that is under construction at the Central Point freeway interchange. That station is one of hundreds planned across the country on major trucking routes.

Merkley said it takes 1.7 gallons of natural gas to provide the energy of one gallon of diesel, but that 1.7 gallons costs $1.50 less than a gallon of conventional diesel.

The conversion of a truck from diesel to natural gas costs about $30,000, he said, but long-haul truckers would recoup that expense in one year through savings on fuel.

Responding to a question about whether he would support more drilling for natural gas on federal lands, Merkley said he would first want to be assured that the drilling efforts met all requirements to avoid polluting water supplies.

In his wide-ranging talk, Merkley also praised Oregon's Legislature for working together in the last session and for putting their differences aside to reach agreement on issues.

"We need that same feeling in Washington, D.C.," he said, "and we don't have it."

Merkley is pushing an effort in the Senate for a "talking filibuster," which would require a filibustering member or members to actually be on the floor of the Senate in order for the filibuster to continue.

He noted when Lyndon Johnson was majority leader of the Senate in the '50s, he had to deal with one lone filibuster. The current majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, has faced 374 filibusters, Merkley said.

"It's been used on every bill to paralyze the Senate and all it takes is one (senator) to do it."

Merkley said he would support the talking filibuster requirement even if his party lost the majority in the Senate. However, he said, it's proven difficult to get minority Republican senators to buck the minority leader, Sen Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Beyond that, he said, it's difficult to get 51 senators from both parties combined to agree to change the longstanding rules of the Senate.

Reach Mail Tribune editor Bob Hunter at