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Photo by Dave Flessner / U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty addresses Chattanooga supporters during a speech Wednesday at the downtown Marriott Hotel.

U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, who led an effort to delay the August congressional recess earlier this month in his unsuccessful bid to block approval of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, said he hopes to gain more support when Congress reconvenes next week to thwart a Democratic plan for another $3.5 trillion spending plan for social infrastructure measures ranging from parental paid time off to green power technology.

In a luncheon with more than 100 Hamilton County business and political supporters Wednesday, Hagerty conceded his recent fight wasn't popular in the U.S. Senate. But the first-term GOP lawmaker said he is standing up for what Tennesseans want to help limit the spread of what he denounced as socialist programs by progressives in the Democratic party.

"When I tried to stop a vote on that [infrastructure] bill I was probably the least popular member of the U.S. Senate, but you didn't elect me to be popular in Washington, D.C.," Hagerty said to the applause of his Chattanooga audience. "This $3.5 trillion package has nothing to do with social infrastructure and has everything to do with socialism, making America more dependent upon the government."

Democrats claim their latest stimulus package is designed to help the U.S. rebound from the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and to help "build America back better" with new infrastructure and greener technologies. President Joe Biden said such measures are needed in response to a pending climate crisis that the United Nation just labeled a "Code Red" emergency demanding lower-carbon technologies for energy and transportation.

Hagerty said such measures and the "Green New Deal" would "effectively destroy the fossil fuel industry" in America and weaken U.S. business.

The Green New Deal is a congressional resolution calling for public policy changes to address climate change. It was introduced by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.

Hagerty, a former investment banker who previously headed Tennessee's Department of Economic and Community Development under former Gov. Bill Haslam, said too few people in Washington today have a business background or understanding. Hagerty said the coronavirus stimulus measures have distorted the U.S. economy by providing enhanced unemployment benefits that discouraged many jobless people from going back to work.

"What I've heard resoundingly from employers across the state is that they feel like they are having to compete with the federal government," Hagerty said. "We've actually been subsidizing unemployment for month upon month and it is making it extraordinarily challenging just to get people to come back into the workforce."

During the pandemic, the federal government provided an extra $300 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits for those who were unemployed and looking for other work. The extra federal supplemental jobless benefits expired in Tennessee in July and ended this week in most of the country.

Biden in March signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, saying an overwhelming percentage of the Americans support the legislation.

"This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country," Biden said when he signed the legislation. "And giving people in this nation, working people, middle-class folks, the people who built this country, a fighting chance."

The labor force participation rate has dropped during the coronavirus pandemic even as Tennessee is currently listing 409,218 available jobs — or 2.6 open jobs for each of the 156,571 people who were out of work in July.

During his economic development tour across Tennessee last week and this week, Hagerty said he has heard about labor shortages across nearly all industries in the state, forcing hospitals and senior centers to limit services, restaurants to close and other businesses to restrict their output.

Hagerty, who served in the Trump administration as ambassador to Japan, said the U.S. economy was as strong as it has ever been under former President Donald Trump before the COVID-19 virus forced the shut down of much of the global economy last year. Hagerty credited the robust economic growth prior to the pandemic to the tax cuts and deregulation efforts by Trump.

While Hagery was commissioner of Economic and Community Development under Gov. Bill Haslam, Business Facilities magazine twice named Tennessee as its State of the Year and Tennessee was the No. 1 state for foreign direct investment.

"Getting government out of the way allows our economy to thrive and prosper," Hagerty said. "I'm going to be doing everything I can to get us going back again in that direction."

"We have a group in control right now who see things another way and their preference is for more government dependency, higher taxes, less opportunity, and more government interference," Hagerty said.

Despite the labor shortages in America, Hagerty said the U.S. can't afford to have a more open border policy with Mexico and he denounced the Biden administration's immigration policy "as a complete collapse of our southern border."

Hagerty accused the Biden White House of being motivated by an anti-Trump sentiment that is eager to reverse anything the former president did.

"This isn't about the best interests of America — it's about settling scores and it's about power," he said.

Democrats narrowly control both chambers of Congress, but Hagerty said the Biden administration's "utter failure" in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is undermining even Democrats' support for  Biden and could create a different political environment this fall for the president.

Biden has defended his handling of the withdrawal.

"I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces," he said on Aug. 16.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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