WASHINGTON – My colleague Charles Pope and I sat down for breakfast with Sen. Jeff Merkley Wednesday morning to get at least a glimpse of how the Oregon Democrat is settling into life in the Senate.
A glimpse is sort of what you get, given how senators are kept moving from meeting to meeting with about the same frequency that a dentist sees a new patient.
Get Merkley started on the housing mortgage mess and Wall Street, and his taste for wonkish detail quickly surfaces. With the aid of a paper napkin as a sketch pad, he filled up half of the 36 minutes his staff gave him for breakfast in the Dirksen Building cafeteria detailing his new understanding of the intricacies of such things as credit default obligations.
With eleven freshmen Democrats in the Senate this year, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. But Merkley said he’s pleased to end up as the only freshman Democrat with three major committee assignments. He said he got his third assignment, the Banking committee, after persuading the chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., that he had a particular passion for housing issues because of his background working for low-income housing groups.
“I feel like I can add to the conversation here,” he said. Still, it’s early and he doesn’t yet know how much ability he will have to influence legislation. His junior status is clear from the fact that there are so many Democrats on the banking committee that he sits at a small table attached to a dais, almost as if he were at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving.
Besides the rigidity of the seniority system, Merkley is also learning about the sharpness of the partisan lines. As a former Democratic leader and speaker in the Oregon House, Merkley is no stranger to partisan combat.
But, he said, “It is amazing how segregated this institution is, and it’s no good for the American people.”
Merkley recalled how Oregon legislators sit in committee: Democrat, Republican, Democrat, Republican, and so forth.
“I never appreciated how important that was to creating conversations and really friendships across the aisle,” he said. Merkley said he’s suggested to a couple of committee chairs that they try this approach. “They say, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting idea, Jeff,'” said Merkley, in an ironic tone that makes it clear it’s an idea not likely to take bloom anytime soon.
He said he’s trying to break through that by scheduling meetings with Republican senators just to get to know them.