By Jake Berry
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen isn't up for re-election this fall. But that didn't stop New Hampshire's senior senator from diving into some of the campaign season's most contentious issues at a town hall-style meeting Monday night.
During the hourlong session at Nashua Community College, Shaheen, a Democrat, touched upon the federal deficit, alternative energy and education funding, among other issues that have drawn headlines throughout the campaign season.
She offered support for extending passenger rail service into Nashua. She said it is time to end government subsidies to the oil and gas industries, and she pledged support for increased funding to higher education, albeit with an eye on the rising federal debt.
"We need to have a serious conversation in this country about what we're willing to invest in the future, and I think education is one of those things we really need to invest in." Shaheen told the crowd of about 50 voters who gathered in the college auditorium.
"But we're going to have to do this in the context of what we're going to do about the current debt and deficits in this country," she said. "We need to put everything on the table."
In her time in the Senate, Shaheen has supported higher education by voting to increase Pell grants offered to students and by supporting an effort to rework the student loan program to provide money directly to schools and students, rather than private companies.
"That's helping us save $68 billion over 10 years," she said. "That's money that goes directly to students."
Still, to better help local students and further job growth across the state, Washington lawmakers and local education leaders must work to improve their programs and leverage the dollars available to produce workers that meet local employment needs, she said.
Nashua Community College, for instance, has used federal grant money to expand its manufacturing courses and partner with local businesses to better prepare students, according to school President Lucille Jordan.
"This way, our students are ready to go to work immediately, and the (businesses) needed the work yesterday," Jordan said after the program. "It has worked out very well, thanks in part to (Sen. Shaheen's) support."
Outside of education, Shaheen expressed support for extending rail service from Nashua south to Lowell, Mass., and toward Boston. Earlier this year, the state's Executive Council voted not to accept money for a federal study into the matter. But Shaheen hoped a new council, elected in November, could give the issue new life.
"It could provide some significant benefits to this part of the state," she said of the rail system. "Particularly here where we have so many people commute down to Massachusetts, it would make a real difference."
Before they fund these projects, however, federal legislators need to address the growing federal debt and deficit, Shaheen said. She cited federal studies suggesting lawmakers need to find $4 billion in savings from the budget to put the country on a road to fiscal health. And to achieve that, they will need to look at spending cuts and additional revenues, among other savings.
"If we're going to achieve $4 trillion in savings, we need to put everything on the table," Shaheen said. "We need to look at the domestic side of the budget. We need to look at the defense side.
Everything needs to be on the table."
Legislators in both houses of Congress need to start looking for savings now before cuts are forced down on them, she said.
Sequestration cuts, included in last year's debt ceiling compromise, are threatening more than $2 trillion in automatic reductions, including $1 trillion in the military over the next 10 years, unless lawmakers come to a compromise in the coming months.
"I don't think anybody agrees that that's the best way to deal with our budget problems in the country," Shaheen said, drawing applause from the crowd. "But there is not agreement on how to do that."
Not everyone was as impressed by her answers, however.
One man took aim at Shaheen and other members of the Senate for failing to pass a budget this year.
Rather than adopting a budget resolution, the Senate has been operating under a spending plan included in the debt ceiling agreement, Shaheen said.
"I don't see a budget from the Senate. I haven't seen a budget for three years," the man said before leaving the meeting hall. "It's kind of a disgrace."
In addition to the partisan gridlock, however, Shaheen blamed Senate rules that allow for easy obstructions, as well as the role of money in politics, for impeding progress on the Senate floor.
"There are a very few, very wealthy individuals who are spending millions of dollars to influence the outcome of the election. Many individuals, who are unable to spend that kind of money, aren't able to have their voices heard the same way.
We need no more secret money in politics," Shaheen said.
"She's absolutely right. Money is ruining our election process," Bill Sousa, an adjunct professor of history at the college, said as he left the event. "How are they ever supposed to get anything done? It's making a joke of the whole process."