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LEE HOCHBERG: It’s been a bleak winter on the Oregon coast. Sixty-five inches of rain have fallen in Astoria, a timber and fishing town of 10,000 at the mouth of the Columbia River. Last night, the clouds lifted for a while. Residents came to a town hall to hear their U.S. senators tell how the nation might get out from under the cloud caused by impeachment.
CHUCK TONTZ, Retired Teacher: This is like dwelling on World War II– it’s all over– or Korea or Vietnam.
(OREGON RESIDENT): We’ve got a lot of serious issues that affect average, everyday Americans, and we need to address those.
LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon’s two senators– Gordon Smith, a conservative Republican, and Ron Wyden, a liberal Democrat– are on an unusual bipartisan odyssey around the state. They’re trying to heal the wounds of impeachment, and chart a post-impeachment course for Oregon.
SEN. RON WYDEN, (D-OR): And I think, frankly, after all the toxic partisanship that we’ve seen back in Washington, DC, this is really the way we ought to be doing business.
SEN. GORDON SMITH, (R-OR): We’re trying to set an example for all of our 98 other colleagues. We think it’s important to say that there are things we can agree on.
LEE HOCHBERG: The two disagreed on impeachment. Republican Smith voted to remove President Clinton from office; Democrat Wyden voted to acquit. But they found in Astoria, as they’ve found at earlier town halls in Portland and Eugene, little interest in Washington’s debate.
(OREGON RESIDENT): The young families in Oregon need more help, and they need more tax credits.
(YOUNG BOY): There’s 30 kids in my class right now, and right now we have a pretty small room, so pretty much the desks are right next to each other. And I was wondering if you’re doing anything to set limits on how many kids in each classroom.
(OREGON RESIDENT): We need the bypass, and we need the bypass all the way down to seaside. We have to have it. We’re going to have gridlock, total.
LEE HOCHBERG: Several in the 120 who gathered asked how the proposed dredging of the Columbia River would affect the crabbing industry, and how proposed removal of hydroelectric dams might affect salmon runs.
(OREGON RESIDENT): Going back to fish again, when you’re in Astoria, you’re going to talk about fish.
SEN. RON WYDEN: It shows that there’s a huge gap between what consumes Washington, D.C., and what consumes people in their living rooms, and coffee shops, and places they gather outside the beltway.
LEE HOCHBERG: In the 90-minute meeting, residents asked about transportation, tourism, and taxation, the environment, education, mental health, fishing, and the year 2000 bug.
SEN. RON WYDEN: And I’d like, on behalf of both of us, to express that never once tonight have any of you brought up impeachment. (Cheers and applause)
SEN. GORDON SMITH: I’d rather talk about dam removal than presidential removal. It’s wonderful to be home, and it’s wonderful to be here, talking about issues that affect your lives.
LEE HOCHBERG: Republican Smith says his constituents clearly want congress to move on.
LEE HOCHBERG: But after the meeting, he made it clear to them that, as when Abe Lincoln engaged the country in the unpopular Civil War, this war for high moral standards was worth fighting.
SEN. GORDON SMITH: I’m very much at peace with my vote.
(OLDER GENTLEMAN): I think you got it right.
SEN. GORDON SMITH: I think history will vindicate it. We’ll see.
(OLDER GENTLEMAN): History will vindicate it, I feel that.
SEN. GORDON SMITH: You didn’t see one person raise this issue publicly, because they’re embarrassed about it, and they’re tired of it, but afterwards, I probably had half a dozen people come up and thank me for my vote, and that does tell you people care about it.
SEN. RON WYDEN: At the end of the day, I’ve come to the conclusion that they just don’t want to see people in politics spend so much time talking about issues that are removed from them.
(OREGON RESIDENT): I appreciate you guys working together.
SEN. RON WYDEN: Thanks a lot.
LEE HOCHBERG: The senators plan to appear tonight, tomorrow, and Friday at other town halls across the state.