FOLLANSBEE - A U.S. senator's stop Saturday morning for coffee at the Ariana Restaurant resulted in a free-wheeling discussion with constituents on everything from exploitation of "clean" coal to the current situation in Egypt and the nation's $14 trillion debt.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, spent about an hour and a half in an informal setting on the first stop of his Coffee and Common Sense tour through the Mountain State Saturday.
The low-key, town hall-style affair began with Manchin going from table to table, shaking hands and dispensing hugs to a packed house that wasn't deterred by the inclement weather.
But once the discussion on the issues got underway, Manchin fielded dozens of questions from a polite but sober audience on issues ranging from the solvency of Social Security to the lack of jobs in the Ohio Valley.
After being introduced by Follansbee Mayor Tony Paesano, the senator began by outlining the issues that concerned him most as freshman senator from West Virginia.
Manchin said the tour was a way for him to stay in touch with his constituents and the issues important to them.
"We want to make sure we get to hear all your concerns," said Manchin, adding the tour was an extension of his campaign for the senate. "I found out West Virginians have more common sense in their little finger than all those in Washington, D.C."
Manchin said he understood the main issue was jobs and how to bring them to the area. He added he was opposed to federal and state Environmental Protection Agency mandates he said are resulting in over-regulation of businesses and manufacturers, killing potential jobs being brought to the area.
He also said the EPA needed more oversight and shouldn't be allowed to make arbitrary mandates.
"We need a balance between the environment and manufacturing jobs," the senator said, adding he was opposed to the Obama administration's energy coal policy. "We can't just do away with coal. Fifty percent of our energy comes from coal."
Manchin said he'd prefer an approach using technology to make coal cleaner rather than shutting down coal-burning power plants. He also lamented the country didn't have a cohesive energy policy, and the country was far too dependent on foreign oil.
"If we don't get an energy policy - that has to change," Manchin said. "We are far too dependent on foreign oil. Every state should use every (energy) resource we have. We could be totally independent, because we export (energy)."
Manchin said he was concerned the upheaval in Egypt could de-stabilize the world's oil prices and lead to far higher gas prices at the pump for Americans.
He also addressed the federal budget deficit, which he said was "all about getting our financial house in order. We have to have a balanced budget. West Virginia was only one of a handful of states that had a balanced budget (in 2010) without having to lay off (state workers).
"We're $14 trillion in debt," continued Manchin. "That's every one of us. I need your feedback. I'm looking to find out from you - does it make sense to raise the (federal) debt ceiling without having a plan in place? We know we're going to be $1.5 trillion in the red this year. There are going to have to be a lot of cuts made."
Manchin also said he would work to protect Social Security.
"They aren't going to cut Social Security, and Medicare will still be available," he said. "Don't let them scare you on that."
The senator also said he wanted Washington to know about the work ethic of West Virginians, and that "people here aren't looking for a hand out. We want to work. We've got to re-invent ourselves. We have a quality work force here."
Manchin said he wanted the country to have "fair" trade rather than "free" trade with international competitors.
"You can't give tax incentives to businesses for moving out of the country and then let them sell their (products) back to you," he said. "If it's bought in America then we should have a chance to make it here."
The senator also discussed the political polarization in Washington, adding he was surprised to see that during committee meetings Republicans sit on one side of the room and Democrats on the other. He added he couldn't see how lawmakers could communicate with each other if they were constantly segregated.
"The system is just too partisan," Manchin said. "There is a time for politics, but we should all be Americans first. If we put our country first, we could change the world."
Part of his job is to learn how the senate operates, but "the senate is like it was 200 years ago. I'm still learning the issues on a federal level."
Manchin also took questions from the audience further defining his stand on the issues:
Manchin said unemployed workers should be allowed to retrain for other occupations while still receiving unemployment benefits.
Transportation fleets should begin using natural gas as a fuel nationally and an infrastructure for fueling established as soon as possible.
Manchin said the cost of the EPA's mandate for the separation of municipalities' sewage and wastewater systems should be shared between local, state and the federal government.
Manchin said the nation couldn't afford more federal stimulus' spending.
"You can't spend your way to prosperity," he said. "We could balance the budget if everyone in the country paid their fair share of taxes."
(Miller can be contacted at email@example.com.)