WASHINGTON — Like all rookies on the Senate’s big stage, Jeff Merkley has been making constant adjustments since arriving in Washington eight months ago. He’s had to decide when to stand up and when to stay low, whom to trust and how to budget his time — all while competing for attention and influence in an institution driven by ego and power, when he has little of either.
So far, Oregon’s newest senator says he’s pleased, even if most of his accomplishments are hard to see. “I feel like this year has been a real gift,” he said in an interview.
But the hardest work — and the biggest tests for Merkley — lie ahead.
Starting today, Congress will launch back into health care, climate change and new regulations on the financial system. Members will struggle to wrap up those initiatives while monitoring the economy and keeping watch on the polls, where public support for President Obama and the Democratic Congress has been receding.
How Merkley fits in and how he’ll affect the issues is hard to predict. He’s a freshman in a chamber governed by seniority, which means any fingerprints he leaves will be small.
“A senator’s first term — and especially the first year of the first term — the goal is to be quiet and learn how to do things,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University.
“But back home, it can be a bit more problematic.,” Moore said. “We elect people to do things, by golly… They want to know, do we see things we can directly trace back to our senator?”
Merkley has had some victories. He was one of a group of senators who demanded money to help homeowners rework mortgages in exchange for voting to release $350 billion to rescue banks. The administration eventually agreed to add $75 billion for mortgage relief, but Merkley says he’s disappointed that the mortgage relief hasn’t flowed faster.
Merkley also wrote a provision for a tobacco bill, later signed into law, that calls for an independent health study of smokeless tobacco packaged to look like candy. Merkley and other critics say the “candy tobacco” was targeted at children.
Merkley also cast a crucial vote on the Banking Committee to move the credit card reform bill to the Senate floor. After the bill’s 12-11 squeaker through committee, it passed Congress and was signed by the president.
As significant as those achievements might be, they are unlikely to register widely back home.
Eight months into his new life, Merkley measures his performance in decidedly unglamorous ways. He likes nothing better than getting deep — sometimes too deep — into the policy minutiae that is necessary to shape issues but is virtually invisible to the public.
He’s happy with the staff he’s hired to run his Capitol Hill office and six others across Oregon. He’s pleased with relationships he’s slowly building with colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans. He’s satisfied with his committees — Health Education, Labor and Pensions (which wrote one of the health care bills), Environment and Public Works (which is writing a climate bill), and the Banking Committee, which is working on a bill to toughen regulation of the financial industry.
Michael Meehan, a long-time senior Senate aide and Democratic campaign strategist, said Merkley’s approach makes sense, especially for a lawmaker from the West. The vast distance makes it important to have a strong staff that can take care of problems at home while “the boss” is on Capitol Hill.
“For Congress as a whole, there are high expectations to achieve a lot,” said Meehan, who is president of Blue Line Strategic Communication in Washington. “Being a new member and in the majority helps, but you have to manage expectations.”
Merkley is taking the long view, believing that a slow, methodical approach will pay off in the long run. It’s a comfortable position for someone educated at Princeton, Stanford and Salem.
“The culture is different and the rules are different,” he said, contrasting the Senate to his experience in Oregon’s House. “But the underlying process is the same — that is, to determine ideas that you believe in and are of value, persuade your colleagues that they make sense, then work them through the legislative hoops.”
There’s time if you’re a U.S. senator. One axiom is that the first year and the fifth year are the most important in a senator’s first term. The first is when a senator makes critical decisions about whom to hire and what issues to pursue. The fifth is when voters start looking for tangible benefits for their support.
So far, Merkley has proven to be a reliable and generally liberal vote, which means he will have limited bargaining power as Democratic leaders scramble to win close votes.
“He’s not a member of a faction that’s getting a lot of attention,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has studied the ways of Congress for decades. Baker spent a six-month sabbatical earlier this year in Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office.
“There’s not a whole lot of public agonizing or doubt about how Merkley will vote most of the time,” Baker said. “From Reid’s point of view, Merkley is pretty close to a sure thing.”
Even so, Merkley is not as easy to define as it might appear.
To promote breast-feeding in the workplace, he formed an alliance with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., widely known as “Sen. No” for his tendency to oppose Democratic initiatives. And Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., joined him on legislation to help homeowners and businesses cut their energy bills by offering low-interest loans for energy-efficient building upgrades.
Merkley is also the man who, when elected to the Senate, packed his stuff and his son in a U-Haul and drove across the country to his new home. He rides Washington’s busy Metro to work everyday.