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Originally published Sunday, July 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Freshman senator from Oregon jumps in with both feet

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., describes his new post, with a seat on three key committees, as ''the best job in the world."

The Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. — When Jeff Merkley moved his family from Oregon to Washington, D.C., as a new U.S. senator, he transported their 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 start 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 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 Hooveresque fashion would have been absolutely unacceptable and done huge damage to our working families," Merkley said.

Merkley said the stimulus is helping to put Oregonians back to work in this tough economy, including in rural areas where forest-thinning projects are getting going.

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

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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 the 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 nonsmoking-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.

The U.S. Senate is quite a different place from the Oregon Legislature, where Merkley served for 10 years, including a stint as 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.

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

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

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."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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