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Wyden: 'Big league' economy needs long-term transportation funding

Oregon senator meets with Portland Tribune editorial board


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says the CIA intrusion into Senate computer files could warrant an investigation by a special prosecutor.U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden covered a wide range of regional and national issues in a meeting Tuesday with the Portland Tribune editorial board.

Among the highlights offered by the Oregon Democrat, who leads the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and sits on the Budget, Intelligence, and Energy and Natural Resources committees:

• On a CIA search of Senate committee files, disclosed July 31: He says a special prosecutor may be required, in addition to the agency’s own investigation, to get to the bottom of what happened.

“If a 19-year-old had hacked into the Senate computers the way this was done, that person would be sitting in jail right now.”

Although they were CIA computers, Wyden said the agency had stipulated they contained Senate Intelligence Committee files. CIA staffers launched the search to discover if the committee had obtained an internal CIA study while investigating a now-defunct detention and interrogation program for terrorism suspects. The Senate report is pending.

Wyden has criticized leaders within the nation's intelligence agencies, as opposed to rank-and-file employees, as doing “a disservice to the country.”

Wyden declined to call for formation of a special committee such as the one led by then-Idaho Sen. Frank Church in 1975 and 1976. Church's committee looked at extralegal intelligence-gathering and covert operations by the FBI and CIA, and its report eventually led to passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978.

• On extending individual privacy rights in the digital age to some commercial transactions, currently exempt from shielding under the “third-party doctrine” dating back decades: “I’m not prepared to have the federal government regulate everything in social media, though there certainly is a role for public safety.”

He said people who voluntarily disclose information to someone for limited business purposes should not have to assume they have given up their constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches.

He gave a longer explanation of his stand in a speech last week to the TechFest NW conference in Portland.

• On the prospects of Republicans winning a majority in the Senate after the Nov. 4 elections: “I believe we are going to keep our majority. But it’s still my job to figure out how to get to common ground.”

Wyden said whichever party has a majority will control the Senate by only a handful of votes, far below the 60 required to move most legislation through the Senate.

If there is a party change, Wyden would lose his position as chair of the Finance Committee, although he would remain its top Democrat.

• On Democratic colleague Jeff Merkley’s chances of winning a second term: “I feel he is going to win. I think he’s done a very good job,” particularly on changing Senate filibuster rules and raising questions about banks and other financial institutions.

Merkley's Republican opponent is Monica Wehby, a physician from Portland making her first bid for public office. Her campaign is benefiting from an infusion of up to $3.6 million from a Koch brothers-affiliated political committee in advertising against Merkley.

• On renewing federal transportation funding, which both houses continued only through the end of May: “We need permanent long-term infrastructure funding. We cannot be a big-league economy with little-league infrastructure.”

Wyden says unlike earlier this year, when the House imposed its short-term fix on the Senate, the Senate will come prepared with proposals for a longer-term solution. An authorization for federal transportation spending ended in 2009, and there have been a series of short-term extension since.

Without the latest short-term fix, the federal fund was within days of running out of money.

• On Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older: Wyden praises recent federal action that will pay extra to doctors who coordinate care for chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart conditions. “But there’s a lot to do. Medicare is up here (for increasing federal budget costs) and everything else is down there. This is the ballgame.”

As the number of Americans turning 65 increases daily — Wyden himself turned 65 in May — Wyden says it’s more urgent to slow Medicare’s rising costs in the budget without damaging services to recipients.

Medicare financing runs through the Finance Committee.

• On the chances of winning congressional approval of bills affecting federal forest lands: Wyden wants to couple changes in funding forest firefighting with changes in forest management. “I am committed to getting them both passed this year. We’re going into the home stretch.”

Wyden and other senators want to tap federal disaster funds, rather than prevention funds that could be spent on forest thinning, when firefighting costs exceed the amounts budgeted.

Wyden’s version of forest management legislation would set a timber production target of 350 million board feet annually, but also provide environmental protection for western Oregon lands, and some continued payments to timber-dependent counties. “There is no way you can get the (timber) harvest level up to not need a safety net,” he says.

A House-passed bill would allow timber production on half the affected lands under a state trust, but Wyden says President Barack Obama is likely to veto that.

“What I’m really doing is isolating the extremes,” he says. “We’ve got industry people who want to take the (timber) cut back to fantasy levels, which is not constructive. We’ve got environmental people … who were picketing me over timber payments.”

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Adds reference to the Church Committee, the mid-1970s Senate panel that investigated extralegal intelligence-gathering and covert operations by the CIA and FBI.