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Summit helps remove barriers to tackling issues

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 12:25 AM

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS -- It's been said that sometimes in the name of progress, you have to make people a little uncomfortable.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said he believes that's one of the roles of the Chamber's Annual Meeting and Business Summit, which in its 77th year had a record-breaking attendance of nearly 900 this week. The summit continues through Friday afternoon at the Greenbrier Resort.

What brought out the masses this year?

"I think it's a combination of love for West Virginia, and that this really is where ideas get put on the table and (the big picture is considered)," Roberts said, doing a turn and pointing to state leaders in politics, health care, law, banking, education, energy and religion all gathered in the massive banquet hall of the resort. "If you want to be in the conversation about West Virginia's future, you have to be here. ... It's not made up. It's movers and shakers gathering to carve out our future.

"I think horizons get expanded here, and we look at and think about West Virginia in different ways," Roberts said. "People running against each other will stand here and talk to each other."

Among those who share that philosophy were a couple of the summit's special guest speakers Thursday, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and former Utah governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, a Republican and also a former U.S. Ambassador to China.

Manchin and Huntsman, who both became governors for the first time and began their friendship in 2004, have co-founded an organization aimed at bringing members of Congress together to forget their politics and talk about issues. It's called No Labels (www.nolabels.org), and it now has 83 members, about an equal split of Republicans and Democrats. One other West Virginian is listed as a member of the group, Republican David McKinley, of the state's 1st Congressional district, who also spoke Thursday at the summit.

With the grave issues before Congress, including the nation's $17 trillion federal debt, it's an effort to seek out those less interested in partisanship and more interested in finding where they have enough common ground to hammer out solutions, the men said.

"The litmus test is, 'Will you put your country before yourself?' If not, this might not be the organization for you," Manchin said, pointing out that it's not intended to become a third political party.

Huntsman said he's "sick" that his seven children are growing up to think it's the norm that Americans are so divided, and said he can't stomach that his generation is handing down a nation with so many problems and so little willingness to come together to solve them.

Both said as governors, they were forced to learn the art of staying within budget and compromise.

"The culture that we come from as governors is one where you have to bring people together to move forward," Huntsman said. "Everyone has to walk away from the table having won something."

They agreed that national debt is the nation's leading issue.

"It's not sustainable. ... It's only so long before we cut off disaster relief, research and development, a lot of things," Huntsman said.

And huge opportunities with the nation's available energy resources could be missed if there isn't some balance struck, Manchin said. He told a story of taking a mix of Democrat and Republican governors to see President Obama in 2009 and having an hour-long discussion with him about environmental regulation so heated that Joe Biden backed up his chair to get out of the way. He said he and the president indicated they could see where the other was coming from.

"(The president) said China was doing this and that with scrubbers and technology. The only thing is they don't use it," Manchin said. "I said, 'You believe we have more responsibility for climate change. China is looking at it as a business opportunity.' You have to find the balance with the resources we have."

He said the country has resources in coal and gas to fuel the country until 2040. There's never been a country that hasn't used its own domestic resources, Manchin said.

"I think there's a balance to be had, but we've really (bumped heads) with the administration," he said.

The country has such opportunities with natural gas it should be giddy, Huntsman said.

"It's less invasive, more environmentally friendly. If we miss on this opportunity, God forbid," Huntsman said. "We have blue sky ahead of us, and it's because of energy in this country."

He's never been so optimistic about the country's resources, but he said he's never been more depressed about its politics. Meanwhile, China is making decisions in tax reform and energy that brighten its future, Huntsman said.

"They're going to leave us in the dust," he said. "But for a political barrier call hyper-partisanship, we'd be able to get a lot more done."

The public approval rating for Congress has sunk to 9 percent, acknowledged Manchin and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who also spoke Thursday morning. Manchin said he's not sure how they've gotten that much, except for getting their families' votes.

"We're losing our young folks. Their confidence in government is waning," Capito said. "I recognize the difficulties you have watching what's going on in Washington. What we have to do is find the common ground in Washington. It's there. It's always been there. ... That core strength is still there. The willingness and want to solve problems is still there. Keep the faith. This country is still stronger collectively than all of us are as individuals."

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