RICHLAND -- The economy, immigration and how the government will handle the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday were the hot issues Sen. Maria Cantwell was questioned about by locals during a visit to the Tri-Cities on Wednesday.
Cantwell made stops at Delta High School in Richland and at a meeting with members of the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Pasco.
It was at the latter that she took questions about a range of issues, such as whether she supported "early outs" for senior workers at Hanford as stimulus money runs out -- the short answer was "Yes" -- and how to streamline the process for citizenship for immigrants.
Cantwell said she has supported legislation that would allow immigrants living in the United States to apply for citizenship, but she isn't optimistic about the prospects of getting legislation through Congress because elected officials can't agree on the details.
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"It's something I'd like to see passed," she said. "The issue right now is everyone stops immigration reform from happening. ... What happens right now is we can't get any piece of immigration reform passed."
On the economy, Cantwell said she'd continue to work for legislation supporting small businesses -- such as the small business lending program she championed in recent months -- and job growth.
"(The Senate) is going back to D.C. in about a week," she said. "We are going to get busy on these policies that will affect our economy. To me, with this level of unemployment, every moment should be focused on what we can do to encourage the private sector. The government can't create jobs, but the government can be a good partner with our fiscal policies."
Some audience members asked whether the shootings in Tucson, that killed six and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others wounded, would prompt more civility and cooperation in politics.
"It is an unspeakable tragedy what happened in Tucson," Cantwell said. "My heart goes out to the families. I hope it does lead to some new dialogue."
But she dodged a question about whether she would support renewing an expired assault weapons ban that would have made illegal an extended magazine alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner is reported to have used on his weapon.
Rather than state a position on gun control, Cantwell said she would focus on flaws in the nation's mental health systems.
"My priorities are going to be in the areas of mental illness," she said. "We need to look at the programs we currently provide and how people can access those, and what families can do to access them. This individual had some severe problems that were identified by some people and yet nothing was done."
During the visit to Delta High, Cantwell met with a roomful of superintendents, university administrators and scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory involved in the school.
The school is a public-private partnership that allows students from Pasco, Kennewick and Richland to sign up for classes focused on science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM -- fields instead of attending their local high schools.
It's not the only STEM school in the country, but its proximity to -- and substantial support from -- the Tri-Cities' research community makes it a rare specimen.
"This is very unique," Cantwell said. "I'm glad the Tri-Cities is leading the way."
Cantwell told the group she's putting together legislation in support of STEM schools. She mentioned few details, instead listening to suggestions from the locals.
She also plans to visit schools in other parts of the state to see how they have put public-private partnerships into action, but she sees Delta leading the way for the nation.
"I'm here to look how this program has been successful and how to scale it to a national level," she said.
Much like Delta students become interns at the national lab here, Department of Energy labs across the country could partner with their local schools to foster STEM education, said Jeff Estes, science education manager at PNNL.
The labs are a huge federal investment that could be used for high school students, too, he said.
His colleague, associate lab director Doug Ray, said Delta's connection with Columbia Basin College is a replicable model for others in the state.
Cantwell asked the Pasco, Kennewick and Richland school superintendents about their greatest needs.
Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill said state and federal school money comes with too many strings attached, and inflexible rules that don't allow districts to set up STEM schools.
"We couldn't have done it without the private partners," she said.
Cantwell toured several classrooms after the discussion and seemed impressed with how much the students liked their school. The kids told her that small class sizes, longer periods and engaged teachers helped them understand complicated subjects.
"I can't wait to get back (to D.C.) and make this an example for the whole nation," Cantwell said.
Before the event, Cantwell downplayed the STEM bill she was scheduled to announce here and barely mentioned it during the discussion.
But a written release provided by her aides said that she is working on a bill called the STEM Education Investment Act of 2011 that would spend $50 million annually on establishing partnerships between schools and private companies, support STEM teacher training, and motivating female and minority students to focus on STEM classes.
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