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Allen: U.S. Must Remain Competitive

Democrat Jim Webb believes there must be more "economic fairness" in the United States

Roughly 70,000 engineers graduate from U.S. universities each year. In India, meanwhile, each passing year adds between 350,000 and 400,000 new engineers to the country's workforce. And China produces upwards of 600,000 engineers each year.

These figures have U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) worried that the United States is falling behind its international competitors.

"We are competing with countries such as India and China that have six or seven times our population," said Allen, 54, speaking Tuesday before a group of Fairfax County small business owners at a Fairfax country club.

The solution, Allen said, is more diversity within the fields of math, science and engineering. The demographics of U.S. engineers, he pointed out, is hardly representative of the nation's population. Only 15 percent of the nation's engineers are women, 6 percent are black and 6 percent are Latino.

"If we're going to be competitive, we need to do it with more than 40 percent of our population," said Allen, a one-term incumbent and 2008 presidential hopeful. "If we want to be the world capital of innovation, we need to get all people involved."

To help keep foreign students from leaving the United States upon graduation, Allen proposed increasing the number of H-1B visas issued each year, which allow U.S. companies to employ non-citizen workers for up to six years.

He also suggested attaching green cards to student visas for foreign students pursuing degrees in math, science and engineering. The idea, he said, is to stymie the loss of top U.S. graduates to other nations.

ALLEN HAS FOUND himself in an increasingly tough re-election bid against Democrat Jim Webb, with the most recent polls showing them in a statistical dead heat.

Webb, 60, a former Secretary of the U.S. Navy under Reagan, has made the idea of "economic fairness" a cornerstone of his campaign.

"The middle class has stagnated," said Webb's spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd. "The poor are unable to get ahead because the number of good paying, solid middle class jobs are leaving the country. They're being outsourced overseas. We need to make sure good paying jobs stay in this country."

If elected, Webb would fight to keep jobs in the United States and would seek to enforce existing trade laws, such as environmental and human rights agreements, that currently go unenforced, said Denny Todd.

A key strategy for economic growth is to raise the nation's minimum wage, Webb says, which has been stuck at $5.15 per hour since 1997. The Webb campaign often points out that Allen has voted against increasing the minimum wage, though he has voted to increase his own salary.

"The time has come for a higher minimum wage," said Denny Todd. "George Allen shirks away from raising the minimum wage. He likes to throw out there that small businesses will go under, but that's just not the case."

AT THE FAIRFAX country club last week, Allen told the business leaders that more needs to be done to ensure that American workers have health insurance.

He said he is a "strong advocate" of health savings accounts, which were created in 2003 and allow citizens to pay for current health expenses and save for health medical and retiree health costs on a tax-free basis. So far, 3 million citizens have signed up for the accounts, one-third of whom were previously uninsured, Allen said.

Allen also supports allowing small businesses to band together to have collective bargaining power with health care providers to get lower rates for employee coverage.

"The time has come for this and you can count on me to be a leader and a teammate," Allen said.

Webb, who will unveil his healthcare plan in the coming weeks, supports universal health coverage for all citizens, said Denny Todd.

"Jim Webb believes that there should be some sort of universal healthcare," she said. "It can be accomplished."

Webb's plan will also call for allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies to drive down medication costs, Denny Todd said.

THOUGH LAST WEEK'S Allen event was billed as part of the senator's "listening tour," there was little interaction with the luncheon's attendees. After a speech, Allen allowed three questions from the crowd.

Josh Fertel, owner of River City Marketing, LLC, based in Fairfax, asked why Allen voted against a bill that would have ensured "net neutrality," or a guarantee that every web site on the Internet loads at an equal speed.

"I'm concerned about keeping the Internet as free as possible," Fertel said. "We don't want a situation where the Internet is the province of big corporations."

Allen responded by saying that he believes the Internet should remain free of regulation and taxes. He added that he believes that libraries should be allowed to block pornographic web sites.

Another business person asked Allen what could be done about sprawl in Northern Virginia, as people increasingly live further away from their workplace.

Allen said the federal government should do more to encourage teleworking. "Teleworking will reduces congestion, improve air quality and improve people's quality of life," he said.

Dan La May, owner of Dan's Van Lines in Lorton, who attended the luncheon, praised the senator.

"In general, his philosophy is pretty good," La May said. "I've always supported him and I always will."