Freshman senator immersed in biggest issues

SALEM — When Jeff Merkley moved his family from Oregon to Washington, D.C. as a new U.S. senator, he transported his belongings himself — driving a big U-Haul across the country with his son in the passenger seat.

"It was fun, because you sit up so high," Merkley said, laughing as he recalled the experience.

During his years in the Oregon Legislature, Merkley was never known as a splashy politico — more a wonky type who works behind the scenes. That's also been his style during his first six months in the Senate.

Serving on three key committees, the Stanford- and Princeton-educated Merkley has become deeply immersed in crucial and heady issues. Those include health care reform, global warming and finding solutions to the nation's financial crisis.

Senate votes are yet to come on the big bills on those issues.

"But in his first six months, Merkley has created a strong reputation for himself," said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "He's a brainy guy who cares about public policy. He dives into issues."

Taking his Senate seat at the dawning of the Obama administration has been huge personally for Merkley. He's been a solid supporter of Obama's policies so far, voting with the new president 95 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly's recent ratings.

That includes Merkley's vote for the Obama's $787 billion federal stimulus package that Republicans say has not done enough to jump-start the economy.

Merkley said he's had no second thoughts about backing it.

"To sit on our hands in a kind of Hoover-esque fashion would have been absolutely unacceptable and done huge damage to our working families," Merkley said.

Not everyone back in Oregon has been impressed with Merkley or the federal stimulus.

In hard-hit Eastern Oregon, where unemployment in some places is far above the state's 12.4 percent jobless rates, there's a feeling of disappointment in both, says Lanny Hildebrandt, a certified public accountant and local Republican leader who lives in La Grande.

"We would like to see more results from Sen. Merkley in job creation. Our traditional jobs — farming, ranching and logging — are really struggling," Hildebrandt said.

Merkley, however, said the stimulus is helping to put Oregonians back to work in this tough economy, including in rural areas where forest thinning projects are coming on line.

While the freshman senator has spent most of his efforts on the Big Three issues pending before committees where he serves, his first big legislative victory came on a different issue — dissolvable tobacco.

Merkley co-sponsored a bill recently signed into law by Obama that gives federal health officials authority to restrict the sale of the newest smoke-free tobacco products — dissolvable pellets or strips that melt in your mouth like breath mints.

The normally reserved Merkley becomes indignant as he describes what he calls the tobacco industry's effort to get kids hooked on nicotine.

"It's candy-flavored, and they put it in clever dispensers. The whole thing was clearly aimed at replacing the 400,000 smokers who die every year ... by addicting children to a non-smoking tobacco product," he says.

During his first six months in Washington, Merkley said he and his fellow Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have tried to have breakfast together once a week. "We spend a lot of time bouncing ideas off of each other. It's very helpful for me to get his thoughts as an experienced hand up here," he said.

This isn't Merkley's first exposure to the Senate. In the 1970s, he served as an intern to Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, a moderate Republican who remains one of the state's most popular officeholders ever. Asked how the institution has changed since then, Merkley doesn't hesitate to answer.

"The biggest surprise is how deep the partisan wrangling is. The Senate is far more divided now," he said.

It's also quite a different place from the Oregon Legislature, where Merkley served for 10 years, including a stint as Oregon House speaker. Merkley said Democrats and Republicans in Salem disagree a lot but manage to keep collegial relations.

Merkley said the schedule in Washington is much more intense, as well, and he often works 12-hour days.

To unwind, he spends time with his wife Mary and their two children, who now attend Washington area schools and are involved in various activities.

"We're going to a lot of swim practices and a lot of swim meets."

Political analyst Jim Moore said Merkley's penchant for deeply diving into issues and working hard have served him well in his first six months.

"He's learning the ropes and building credibility in the Senate. He is building up expertise in certain areas, such as clean energy, and he will use that as his base of power," said Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.

In the meantime, Merkley said he is savoring every day in the Senate.

"I pinch myself and say, "Did this really happen? Am I sitting two seats away from President Obama holding a conversation on the budget?

"It's the best job in the world."

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