Last weekend, as neither unusual Democratic unity in the Senate nor vast numbers of protesters in the streets were stopping Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Jeff Merkley declared firmly that all the sound and fury really did signify something.
“We’re having a huge impact on what’s going on,” insisted the Oregon senator, “the grass roots making their voice heard in combination with what’s going on inside.”
To Merkley, emerging as one of the most aggressive Democratic voices of opposition to Trump, the Senate opposition feeds off – and feeds – the rumbling resistance across the country. “Senators are getting a huge amount of mail and phone calls,” he points out. “Some Republican senators are taking their phones off the hook.”
Facing bulging numbers of protesters, congressmen have been cancelling town halls, or sneaking out of them early. Last Tuesday, 50 demonstrators showed up in Merkley’s Portland office urging him to be their valentine and stand firm. A jaw-dropping 3,500 showed up for a Merkley town hall in East Portland, a turnout less typical of a congressional town hall than a boat show with an open bar.
“We have been shocked by the nominees to the Cabinet,” Merkley said, sounding still shocked. “The president campaigned on taking on Wall Street, draining the swamp and fighting for workers. Everything he’s done has betrayed those three promises.” Noting the quick confirmation of James Mattis as secretary of defense, Merkley mused, “When the sanest one of the nominees is nicknamed ‘Mad Dog,’ you have something strange going on.”
And some nominees were even worse than others.
“Andrew Puzner, the choice for labor secretary, ran an operation full of labor violations,” Merkley pointed out. To meet goals in Puzder’s fast-food companies, “Managers had to bring workers in to work off the clock, which is illegal.”
And last Wednesday, Puzner withdrew his name, after several Republican senators jumped off the ship. Puzner’s labor problems may not have been the deal-breaker for the Republicans, but the labor issues drove the Democratic solidarity that made his confirmation impossible.
That wasn’t even the worst news of the week for Trump. That came the day before, when national security advisor Michael Flynn either jumped or was pushed out of his job after revelations of what he told the Russian ambassador, followed by The New York Times’ reporting of extensive communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Merkley immediately joined 10 other Democratic senators in calling for an independent prosecutor investigation, declaring, “Michael Flynn’s efforts to undermine U.S. sanctions against Russian election hacking were totally wrong and probably illegal… Now we need a robust, independent investigation into the full extent of the communications between the President and his advisors and Russia. What did they know, and what did they do?”
In fact, argues Merkley, the loud level of opposition on and off Capitol Hill is forcing hesitation among some Republicans on their highest-profile platform plans: Repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting all funding to Planned Parenthood.
Taking a point position in the Senate resistance, Merkley has spoken to an empty chamber at five in the morning in opposition to a Cabinet nominee, stood on the Senate floor for two hours in the middle of the night to keep a debate going and – in the biggest of all appointment battles — insisted that the only Supreme Court nominee the Senate should consider is Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s snubbed selection.
Doing that, insists Merkley, would “restore the integrity of the process.”
After all, he argues, if the Senate can freeze a Supreme Court seat empty for a year – as it did by refusing to consider Garland – why couldn’t the Senate keep the spot empty for two, three or four years.
“The seat was stolen,” Merkley declared in Portland last weekend, looking even more drained by the Trump era than the typical Portland voter. “I consider (Trump pick Neil Gorsuch) an illegitimate nominee.”
Even the most determined Democratic resistance to Gorsuch, including a filibuster to keep the Senate from voting, is expected to be ultimately doomed; if Republicans can’t break the filibuster, they can change the rules, allowing a Supreme Court justice to be confirmed with just a simple 51-vote majority.
“I don’t accept the premise,” said Merkley firmly, “He should have to get 60 votes.”
Republicans, he insists, will be cautious about changing the 60-vote requirement, because it’s intended to keep high court nominees in the political mainstream – a standard, Merkley says, that disqualifies Gorsuch.
So he considers Gorsuch out of the mainstream?
“Yes. Absolutely,” Merkley judges. Gorsuch, he says, opposes class-action lawsuits, a major tool for holding companies accountable, and has a negative record on gay rights.
“I don’t see anything in his opinions that’s pro-rights,” the senator concludes. “He’s pro-profits.
In a presidency marked by outpourings of opposition, marathon sessions on the Senate floor and throngs in the streets, Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court is likely to be the biggest battle yet, with Merkley an outspoken presence. For confirmation, Gorsuch would need either eight Senate Democrats or a change in the Senate rules.
And Merkley – and other congressmen – will likely need a lot more space at town halls.
NOTE: This column appeared in The SundAY Oregonian, 2/19/17.