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Wyden hopes to reinstate federal timber payments

It's a cynical joke in Washington, D.C., that nothing gets done in an election year.

But U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., isn't laughing.

"The popular wisdom is that the people's business stops because it's an election year," Wyden said. "I don't buy that at all."

The senator is making the rounds at several town hall meetings throughout the state before the new congressional session begins later this month.

Wyden stopped in Medford to discuss legislation on tap for 2012. He told the Mail Tribune that he is eager to work with Republicans to solve some of Oregon's problems, including securing timber funding payments to counties hard-hit by the economic downturn and improving Medicare coverage for seniors.

By and large, the most pressing issue on people's minds is the economy, Wyden said.

Wyden said he has a host of Democratic and Republican senators on board to reauthorize federal timber payments to rural counties. The payments to Jackson County are down to $11 million this year and will shrink to $7 million next fiscal year, after which they drop to zero unless Congress agrees to renew them. Counties with large percentages of federal land depend on these payments to help fund schools, police and fire departments.

"We've got to get (the payments) renewed," Wyden said.

Wyden also favors a compromise in which federal lands could be opened to additional logging in return for the timber payments.

He sees a market for biomass fuels that can spark Oregon's economy and make counties less dependent on federal cash.

Wyden made headlines recently when he joined Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to draft a plan to revamp Medicare by allowing private insurers to compete with each other and with the government program starting in 2022.

The plan also will allow people to keep popular insurance plans and carry them from job to job. And should someone lose his job, he still would have access to affordable insurance plans similar to the ones offered by employers.

Liberal pundits have attacked the plan, saying it will diminish Medicare and push it toward privatization.

Wyden said many seniors already use private insurance and that his bill will improve those plans because they will have to offer better service to compete with Medicare.

The senator said traditional Medicare will still exist under his plan.

"If they want Medicare then it will be there for them if they want," Wyden added.

Wyden hopes Democrats and Republicans will line up to support the legislation in the coming year.

Wyden admitted that the plan won't solve Medicare's solvency issue. Further reforms are needed to ensure the program won't run out of money sometime in the 2020s, Wyden said.

Wyden argues that partisan gridlock has made it harder than ever to get big things done on Capitol Hill.

The public has passed its judgment on the current Congress. It has the dubious honor of being the least popular Congress in history.

Wyden said he doesn't blame the country for being irritated at the bickering and stalling tactics used to block legislation.

"You can't get big, important things done if you're not willing to cross the aisle," Wyden said.

That has become harder to do in an era when information is passed quickly through blogs and partisan television shows that cater to specific parties.

"We have to figure out a way to get things done," Wyden said. "There's a lot of heavy lifting for us to do, but I think we can do it."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., right, and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., talk to citizens during a town hall style meeting in the city council chambers in Medford Tuesday. Jim Craven/1-11-05