Since coming to Congress, freshman Sen. Jeff Merkley has rented a room, bought a used car, hired staff and voted for more than $1.1 trillion to keep the country’s economy afloat.
“There is no kind of gradual beginning, or warm-up,” the Oregon Democrat readily concluded. “This is full throttle from Day One, and I think it is an unusual experience.”
Merkley’s early votes are all the more remarkable — and risky — because he had campaigned against bailing out Wall Street, running an ad attacking his Republican opponent for supporting the $700 billion rescue of the country’s financial system last fall.
The new senator and other members of the freshman class are quickly finding out that the view is a lot different from Capitol Hill.
The seriousness of the current recession plunged first-term lawmakers immediately into the most consequential economic legislation in recent history. Just in its first six weeks, the new Congress has approved a $787 billion economic stimulus package and the second $350 billion installment of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
The two votes are likely to haunt the political careers of freshman lawmakers for years to come.
“As a stand-alone vote, it may not matter,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. But “it could be used as a building block to come.”
Typically, new lawmakers take a few weeks to settle into Washington, brush up on congressional protocol and navigate the maze-like corridors of the Capitol before casting high-pressure, big-impact votes.
Not this year.
“I’m in here at 7 and still going at 10:30 at night and still not feeling like I’m clearing the backlog of stuff,” Merkley said in an interview.
To guide them through the thorny economic issues now facing Congress, freshmen are expanding their circle of economic experts, talking to their local business groups, conferring with party leaders and trying to make sure that their districts get their share of the funds.
At the same time, many are also thinking strategically about their political future.
Several of the new Democratic lawmakers came out strongly against government bailouts during their campaigns, opposing the billions in rescue funds handed out to banks and auto companies by the last Congress and administration.
But almost immediately after arriving in Washington, they came under intense pressure from the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders to support additional spending. Several, including Merkley, voted for both the stimulus and TARP funds.
Those reversals could become political liabilities in the future, Duffy says.
Even for those who didn’t run against government bailouts, the attack ad practically writes itself. A classic example, Duffy suggests, is a spot with a narrator saying something like: “In total, he has spent $3 trillion of your hard-earned money and what did you get?”
“Frankly, that’s how the Democrats beat the Republicans this year — by taking totality of voting record and using it against them,” she said.
Particularly vulnerable are Democratic lawmakers who unseated Republican incumbents in traditionally fiscally conservative states, like new Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Begich of Alaska.
Some freshmen are already explaining their votes and, in the process, laying the groundwork for a future campaign defense.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who beat 11-term Republican incumbent Rep. Chris Shays last fall, was one of the five freshmen who voted in favor of the second $350 billion installment of the government’s bailout funds. Himes represents southwest Connecticut, an area with an economically conservative streak and a large number of Wall Street commuters.
He stresses that both the stimulus and TARP are hold-your- nose-and-say-yes sort of votes.
“These are not things we want to do; these are things we have to do because the economy is on the brink,” Himes said. “I don’t like spending substantial money in the face of huge national debt any more than anyone else does.”
Merkley found himself in a far trickier political situation.
The Oregon Democrat slammed Republican incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith’s support for the $700 billion bailout, calling it “a trillion-dollar blank check for Wall Street” in an attack ad. Weeks later, he voted to release the second installment of the funds.
Merkley explained his reversal online, writing on the liberal blog Daily Kos that he used the vote to raise the issue of mortgage relief for distressed homeowners with the administration.
“I spent the last several days arguing this case at the highest levels of the Obama team, meeting with and calling repeatedly Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers, and talking once directly to our incoming president,” he wrote.
The administration, Merkley said, promised that $50 billion to $100 billion of the TARP funds would go to addressing the foreclosure problem.
About a month after the Senate approved the funds, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced plans to commit $50 billion to reduce monthly mortgage payments. And last week, President Barack Obama announced plans to help struggling homeowners refinance or modify their mortgages.
“It’s going to be rare moments ... that I’m going to be able to engage them at that level,” Merkley said. “This will happen very rarely in my days as a senator.”
Still, the senator knows that changing course so soon after taking office is not likely to go unnoticed by Republicans back in Oregon.
“I’m going to do what feels right to save us from an extraordinary crisis, and I’m not going to worry about the political explanations,” Merkley said. “I’m going to do all I can to break the free-fall of this economy.”