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Sen. Merkley Learning The Ropes In D.C.

It’s been about a hundred days since Jeff Merkley was sworn in as Oregon’s U.S. Senator. He’s an experienced legislator at the state level, but new to the scene in Washington D.C. April Baer checks on how Merkley’s doing on the job.

As a Senator, Jeff Merkley isn’t under the same kind of pressure as, say, President Obama to perform in the first hundred days in office.

But Oregonians have had a chance to get a sense of Merkley, as he navigates a minefield of Senate votes. And his committee appointments have given him a front-row seat.

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Francis Creighton  “It’s fair to say the Senate Banking Committee is the epicenter of everything that’s going on in the Senate this year.”

Francis Creighton is a vice president for the D.C.-based Mortgage Bankers’ Association, he lobbies the Senate Banking Committee, which Merkley joined in January.

Francis Creighton  “From the auto bailout to what happens with TARP, the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, what happens to the investment banks and other banks—this is an incredibly important committee.”

Senator Merkley agrees his first few months on the job have been eventful.

Jeff Merkley   “I’ll tell you, the decade I spent in the Oregon legislature was very very helpful.  You find out things get done by talking to people.”

But he says it wasn't tough to transition from being a dealmaker, as Oregon House Speaker, to a junior Senator whose mightiest tool is arguably a single yes or no vote. As an example, he mentions the January vote on releasing additional money for the banking bailout bill.

Jeff Merkley    “I was an adamant opponent of repeating mistakes we made with the Toxic Assets Recovery. I told the administration there was no way, and I told my leadership the same thing, no way it’d receive my vote, unless we got a big chunk of those funds going to working families in trouble with their mortgages.”

It’s worth remembering Capitol Hill heavyweights like Congressman Barney Frank were making the same request. But the foreclosure relief  ultimately did get passed.

Norman Williams, with Willamette University’s Center for Law and Government says it’s too much to expect Merkley to be a deal-maker right out of the gate

Norman Williams  “Set realistic expectations for Senator Merkley. He just moved cross-country, he is the most junior Senator, along with the other freshman in an institution that is very seniority-bound. He’s got to learn the ropes on the institution.”

You could be forgiven if you missed Merkley’s first floor speech a few weeks ago.  Merkley’s big moment came in late March, right in the middle of the day, when most Oregonians were at work or school. He chose to use the time to talk about housing and foreclosure issues.

Jeff Merkley:  “All too often this past decade, we’ve allowed the Great American Dream of home ownership to become a great American nightmare.”

The full speech is available on YouTube . It's classic Merkley- showing a  dedication to wonkish detail over fiery oratory. His friends say Merkley's the kind of pragmatic guy who prefers to get work done behind the scenes. His detractors marvel at how someone with so little public profile can rise so high in public service.

Jack Kane   “It serves you well if you’re running in a year when all you have to do is put a D behind your name to get elected. But given a year where it’s more competitive, as most election years are, it’s going to be a liability for him.”

Jack Kane is a Republican campaign consultant who’s worked on several federal and statewide races. He warns that Merkley will have to defend “yes” votes on stimulus and banking bills to voters who may be uncomfortable with the mind-boggling sums being spent in Washington these days.

Perhaps with that in mind, Merkley has made a point of scheduling Town Hall meetings in some conservative regions of the state as part of his first hundred days in office.

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