Republican desk becomes a Democrat as Merkley pays tribute to Hatfield

Years ago, when Jeff Merkley was an intern for Oregon’s iconic Mark Hatfield, the running joke was that the Republican senator would one day pull the young and impressionable liberal from his Democratic moorings to “the other side.”

Merkley and his family of die-hard Democrats always countered that it would be the idealistic Merkley who would convert Hatfield. The conversation always prompted laughs and the silent understanding that a stalemate was all but guaranteed.

And it was, for more than 30 years – until last week when Merkley learned that the personal desk assigned to him on the Senate floor is the very same desk once occupied by his mentor, Hatfield.

“I wasn’t able to pull Hatfield over the line,” said a very pleased Merkley, “but now I brought his desk over.”

A Senate desk isn’t just a piece of furniture. The 100 desks on the Senate floor carry a rich history.

Forty-eight of them were built by New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine for $34 apiece in 1819, after the first set was destroyed when the British set fire to the Capitol in 1814. Newer desks were added as states joined the union and new senators appeared. The four constructed for Alaska and Hawaii in 1959 were built in the Senate Cabinet Shop
Like the lawmakers who use them, there are noticeable differences in the desks’ shape and dimension. Each one reflects its position in the semicircular arrangement of the Old Senate Chamber: aisle desks were narrow and angled, while center desks were wider and squared.

Inside each desk is more history: the drawers are inscribed with the names of the senators who used them.

Not all of the names were personally written. The names of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun appear in their desk drawers, but the signatures are not original. Many names reveal an identical hand, suggesting either that older drawer bottoms were replaced and the names recopied, or that staff members, rather than senators, took responsibility for chronicling certain holders. In recent decades, senators have adhered more closely to a tradition of personally carving or inscribing their desk drawers.

Thirty-two years ago, Jeff Merkley first arrived on Capitol Hill as an intern for then-Sen. Mark Hatfield. The two have remained in touch; Hatfield swore Merkley in as speaker of the house in the Oregon Legislature just two years ago.

Mindful of his connection and history with Hatfield, Merkley formally asked for Hatfield’s desk in January when he arrived in Washington as a new senator. But it was a wish he expected to go unfulfilled.

Because Hatfield is a Republican and Merkley a Democrat, Hatfield’s old desk was bolted to the floor on the right side of the Senate chamber. Merkley, as a Democrat, would be assigned a seat on the left side of the chamber. As much as he wanted Hatfield’s desk, Merkley was not willing to change parties to get it.