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U.S. senators meet with public about concerns

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

FITZGERALD, Ga. -- Both of Georgia's U.S. senators were in Fitzgerald Tuesday for a town hall meeting with constituents who were interested in the debt issues in Washington, along with some issues that were closer to home.

The meeting, the first of six planned in the state by the senators, wrapped up around 5 p.m.

Last week, when the U.S. Senate took up a House amendment that raised the debt ceiling for the United States government, the senators took opposing stances. Chambliss voted against the measure, while Isakson supported it.

The legislation passed and was signed by President Obama.

Isakson, in response to a question, said he supported the legislation, which trims $2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, because he thought it was a good first step in the right direction.

Chambliss, however, said he voted against the bill because it only went half as far as necessary. He said any legislative response would have needed to include twice as much -- $4 trillion -- in reduced spending to send the right message to the markets.

Both Senators spoke briefly about the spending issue before the floor was opened for questions, and both said that "nothing is off the table" when talking about government cuts.

Gretchen Quarterman, a Lowndes County Democrat who drove from Valdosta to participate in the meeting, asked both senators if they were committed to bringing U.S. armed forces abroad home, thereby saving money; money, she said, that could be spent on much-needed domestic programs like infrastructure improvements here.

"Everything has got to be on the table, and yes, defense has got to be on the table as well," Isakson said. "But we have to make sure that we don't slight the veterans who are coming home and will need proper care."

Chambliss, who said the Pentagon's portion of the federal budget is more than 15 percent of the total pot, said that they too have been asked to trim back.

"You can bet that there is waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon, and that's something that needs to be trimmed out," Chambliss said. "But we in Washington don't need to tell them what to cut. They have some of the best and brightest folks in the world working there who know best where to cut, and they have gotten that message, without jeopardizing the mission and national security."

George Grimes, a former head of the NAACP in Valdosta asked if the senators could work to end Georgia's status as a right to work state, saying that many statewide workers are being terminated "for cause and without cause," contributing to high unemployment numbers.

Isakson referred Grimes to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Atlanta as a place to file a grievance if a person feels that he or she has been unfairly terminated.

Bill Kelley from Tifton asked the Senators if there is any hope of getting the political doctrine of "baseline budgeting" removed from the Washington lexicon.

Chambliss said one of the things that the new debt legislation does is cap spending at the March 2010 baseline -- a move he said was likely a shift in that direction.

On an issue that is particularly geared toward Southwest Georgia, Chambliss said the work on the 2012 farm bill is under way. He predicted the legislation would look much different than previous farm legislation, but said farmers could look forward to keeping many of the aspects that they need in the bill.

Chambliss said Congress will be considering three new free trade agreements that he said will benefit those in agriculture tremendously.

Those three agreements -- with South Korea, Columbia and Panama -- will eliminate tariffs on items traded between the two countries. Most notably, Chambliss said that South Korea and Columbia are each big agriculture importers from the U.S.

Tad Stephens of the Georgia Farm Bureau asked the senators how they plan to overhaul federal programs in order to help farmers who are suffering from a critical shortage of farm labor brought on, in part, by strict new immigration laws by states like Georgia.

Isakson largely deferred to Chambliss on the issue but said that both the Bush and Obama administrations, along with Congress, "had abdicated their authority on immigration and forced the states to take on the issue." He said he's in favor of including biometric identification measures such as fingerprints or retinal scans into passports to help reduce the number of undocumented workers.

Chambliss said that while the federal worker VISA program known as H2A is cumbersome for farmers, it's still the best way to ensure that immigrant labor is here legally. He said he will continue to push participation in the program with the understanding that tweaks may be needed.

"Rather than make the job temporary, we need to make the worker temporary," he said. "That means staying for no more than 10 months and ending the practice of bringing families with them so that they can set down roots."

Georgia's junior senator added that immigration should reflect the situation in the United States. When there are plenty of jobs, more should be allowed in to work. But when jobs are scarce, the ones who are available should be filled with domestic workers, he said.