November Election

Merkley has focused on health, energy and consumer protection

Democratic senator scrutinized over legislative record his rival lacks

By Lily Raff McCaulou / The Bulletin

Sen. Jeff Merkley

Merkley, 57, was born in Myrtle Creek and raised in Roseburg before moving to Portland during elementary school. The son of a stay-at-home mom and a millwright, he was the first member of his family to attend college.

At age 19, he took a year off from his studies at Stanford and moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as an intern for Oregon’s longtime Republican Senator, Mark Hatfield.

After graduating and obtaining a graduate degree in public policy from Prince­ton, Merkley moved back to the capital and worked as a security analyst at the Pentagon and the Congressional Budget Office.

He returned to Oregon in 1991 to run the Portland office of Habitat for Humanity, then the World Affairs Council of Oregon.

In 1998, he was elected to the state House of Representatives. He became Democratic leader in 2003, and speaker of the House after Democrats won the majority in the 2006 election.

In 2008, he narrowly defeated two-term Republican Gordon Smith. He lives in East Portland with his wife, two children and an Airedale terrier named Sadie.

PORTLAND — In Oregon’s race for U.S. senator, incumbent Jeff Merkley has something his Republican challenger, Monica Wehby, doesn’t: a political record.

The trail of yeas and nays left over the course of five years in the U.S. Senate and, before that, 10 years in the Oregon House of Representatives, is a double-edged sword for Merkley. On the positive side, it gives voters a clear picture of where he stands on issues. But it also offers fodder for his rival’s campaign.

Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon and first-time political candidate, has attacked Merkley for being a partisan liberal. In a press release last week, her campaign called Merkley “one of the most polarizing figures in the nation and a rubberstamp for the agenda of extremists.”

A look at Merkley’s history in office reveals a Democrat who usually votes along party lines but who doesn’t focus on the biggest, loudest issues associated with the Democratic Party. At times, Merkley has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration, especially for its stance on surveillance and its secrecy regarding counterterrorism efforts.

“Jeff fights for what matters to Oregon’s middle class, no matter how many headlines that might garner,” said Lindsey O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Merkley’s campaign.

There are at least three topics that Merkley has taken up in Salem and then again in Washington: prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people, cracking down on predatory lending practices and supporting nursing mothers in the workplace.

In the Senate, because of his lack of seniority among Democrats, Merkley doesn’t hold any leadership position as powerful as Oregon’s senior senator, Ron Wyden, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. Merkley serves on four committees that address appropriations; banking, housing and urban affairs; environment and public works; and budget. He has been active, introducing or sponsoring 96 bills so far in his first term and countless others as a state representative in Salem.

Here’s a look at some of the issues and laws that make up Merkley’s job history:

In 2007, Merkley led Oregon’s Legislature to pass a law that banned workplace discrimination based on sexuality.

As a U.S. senator, he championed a similar law and helped it pass the Senate, 64-32 in November 2013. He persuaded 10 Republicans to vote for the bill, in part by accepting their proposed changes, such as strengthening exemptions for religious organizations. A House version of the anti-discrimination bill hasn’t made it out of committee for a full vote.

In 2007, following reports that there were more payday lenders than McDonald’s in Oregon, charging an average annual interest rate of 528 percent, Merkley sponsored a bill in the Legislature that capped interest rates on payday loans under $50,000 at 30 points above the federal reserve rate. One year after the law was signed, three out of four payday lenders in the state had closed up shop.

When Merkley was elected to the Senate, in 2008, Oregon was hard-hit by the recession. He co-wrote an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which passed in 2010 in response to the subprime mortgage crisis. Merkley’s amendment prohibited high-risk trading by banks that accept government-insured deposits. He also supported the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help prevent predatory lending practices.

Wehby has said she would have voted against the Dodd-Frank bill, because it does little to prevent another financial crisis and gives the country a false sense of security.

Wehby often slams Merkley for his support for the Affordable Care Act. Wehby’s campaign slogan — “Keep your doctor. Change your senator.” — is banking on Oregonians’ frustration with the health care overhaul.

It turns out Merkley didn’t just vote for the bill, he helped write a small part of it. Teaming up with Sen. Tom Coburn, a physician and Republican from Oklahoma, Merkley added text to the law to provide support for breast-feeding mothers in the workplace. Their amendment requires employers to provide flexible unpaid breaks and space for pumping breast milk. It’s the federal version of an Oregon law he helped enact in 2007.

Merkley has spoken publicly about the challenges his wife, Mary Sorteberg, a registered nurse, faced when returning to work after the birth of their first child. It’s an issue so important to Merkley that he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, in the summer of 2007, at a luncheon banquet for the Nursing Mothers Council for Oregon.

Clean energy is another topic Merkley has focused on, but with little success to show for it. He repeatedly co-sponsored bills that would end tax breaks and subsidies for large oil and gas companies, but none passed. With Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., he proposed a bill that would provide billions of dollars to develop and deploy electric vehicles, as a step toward weaning the country off foreign oil. That bill never gained traction, either.

Merkley and Wyden proposed a bill that would prohibit the U.S. government from buying Chinese-made solar panels. And he joined Wyden in criticizing the Obama administration for loosening import duties on solar panels assembled in China. Along with Wyden, he has been a vocal critic of Chinese currency manipulation and other practices by the country to promote its own manufacturing industries.

Merkley’s most high-profile legislative victory came last fall, after years of fighting to limit the Senate’s use of the filibuster, a procedure that delays or deters voting until a 60-vote supermajority agrees to advance. In November, the Senate approved a rule change proposed by Merkley and Sen. Tom Udall, a fellow Democrat from New Mexico. It passed, 52-48, to require a simple majority vote on most nominations made by the president.

The filibuster is a tactic used by the minority party, in which Merkley could soon find himself, if he wins in November. Many pundits predict Republicans will win a majority in the Senate this year.

O’Brien, Merkley’s campaign spokeswoman, said the senator thinks filibuster reform is a good idea regardless of which party is in charge.

“In 1976, Jeff interned for Republican Senator Mark Hatfield (of Oregon), and he saw a Senate that actually functioned,” O’Brien said. “It voted on bills, allowed debate on amendments, and passed legislation. When he returned as a senator in 2009, he saw a very different Senate — one bogged down by partisan paralysis and rampant abuse of the rules. Jeff feels very strongly we need a Senate that can actually take on the big problems we face as a nation, a Senate that can debate, deliberate and decide on the issues.”

She said Merkley views the rule change as a “modest step” toward filibuster reform.

Though he worked to require a simple vote for them, Merkley has not supported all of Obama’s nominees. In 2010, for example, Merkley was one of 11 Democrats and 18 Republicans who voted against Ben Bernanke’s confirmation for a second term as Federal Reserve chairman.

“Bernanke failed to recognize or remedy the factors that paved the road to this dark and difficult recession,” Merkley said in a written statement released before he cast his vote.

Last year, Merkley was one of just two Democrats who joined 31 Republicans in voting against the confirmation of John Brennan to head the CIA. Merkley cited concerns about what he called dangerous violations of civil liberties, including the use of drones and wiretaps without warrants.

Also last year, Merkley spoke out against Obama’s reported front-runner to chair the Federal Reserve, Larry Summers. The Washington Post reported that Merkley called the White House from the Pendleton Round-Up to voice his concerns about the former Treasury secretary being too lax on regulation. Facing opposition from other Democrats, Summers later withdrew his name from consideration.

Merkley has also criticized Obama for his plan to keep nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond this year.

Last spring, Merkley praised Greg Walden, Oregon’s only Republican representative to Congress, and agreed with the congressman on his criticism of Obama’s plan to include “chained consumer price index” in the 2014 budget. The proposal, which Obama later dropped, would have slowed the rate of increase for Social Security payments.

Merkley has been especially critical of what he has noted as the administration’s tendency toward secrecy. He has criticized the administration’s stance on National Security Agency surveillance, its legal defense of the indefinite detention of enemy combatants and its policy to permit American casualties abroad during counterterrorism operations. In 2012, Merkley joined conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in proposing an amendment to disclose information about a special court that reviews applications for electronic surveillance to gather foreign intelligence. The Senate rejected the amendment, 54 to 37.

— Reporter: 541-410-9207,