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Sen. Merkley's anti-Trump message 'hit a real nerve' with large town hall crowds
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was largely cheered Saturday by the biggest crowds — numbering in the thousands — that he has encountered at town hall meetings during his eight years.
The Oregon Democrat said he is willing to lead opposition to many of the Cabinet nominees and executive orders of Donald Trump, the Republican sworn in as president 10 days ago. But Merkley also said like-minded Oregonians have to pass the word along to family and friends in other states represented by Republicans if they hope to block or change them — and advance alternatives.
"We need to capture that power," Merkley said. "We need to infuse it into local efforts everywhere across this country."
Merkley said he wants to do in reverse what others, including Russian interests, did to spread false news about the election.
"Friends telling friends about what is going on in the world is a very effective way of spreading news, so what happened was an effective way of spreading false news," he said. "What we want to spread is the passion of the resistance to this set of policies."
Merkley said later he was surprised by the size of the crowds, which numbered between 600 and 1,000 at Tigard High School and a record 3,700 at the Marshall campus of Franklin High School in Southeast Portland. The latter crowd, which officials estimated by using a clicker as people passed through, included hundreds who stood outside the cafeteria watching Merkley through the windows.
They were town hall meetings 289 and 290 since Merkley became a senator in 2009.
"These turnouts show that the actions of the Trump administration have hit a real nerve," Merkley said afterward to the Portland Tribune.
"People are so concerned about health care, oil companies taking over environmental agencies, Wall Street taking over our economy, violations of our fundamental principles of being a nation of immigrants — open to receiving them — and slamming the door shut on refugees."
Crowds may have been organized to counter a reported effort by the Oregon Tea Party, which has largely supported Trump — but if Tea Party members were present, they were largely silent.
"I am happy with what he said," Sascha Krader of Portland said after the Franklin meeting. "I think we are going to have a massive wave (of backlash) in 2018 if they do not completely crush everybody. But I have never seen anything like this. My mother, even my mother-in-law — who lives in suburban Ohio — are involved in politics for the first time."
Majorities in Multnomah and Washington counties led support for Merkley's re-election as senator in 2014, as well as Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy in Oregon on Nov. 8.
But Democrats and two independents who align with them — including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who drew his lone Senate endorsement from Merkley for his presidential bid — constitute just 48 of the 100 senators.
"This is why I am emphasizing a grassroots response," Merkley said. "We need to have Republican senators, in state after state, to feel this kind of passion of the people that you represent here today so that they will join with us and vote these nominations down."
Merkley already has voiced opposition to several Trump nominees, among them Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary, Jeff Sessions for attorney general, Tom Price for health and human services secretary, Betsy DeVos for education secretary, and Scott Pruitt for Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
"We hope that some Republicans who care about public education, health care and other things will join us in defeating some of these individuals who certainly do not represent the interests of ordinary citizens," Merkley said.
Merkley said later he does not regret leading a successful effort in 2013, when Democrats still had a majority in the Senate, to require a simple majority of 51 votes to confirm executive and judicial appointees — except for the Supreme Court — instead of the 60 to close debate and end a filibuster that still applies to legislation.
Republicans did not change the rule when they took over in 2015, when Democrat Barack Obama was still president.
"A minority in the Senate should not be able to destroy the executive branch and the judiciary. So it was the right decision," Merkley told the Portland Tribune. "It means we need to have 51 votes to block any of the president's nominees."
When someone in the audience challenged Merkley on how effective Democratic senators can be to block nominees, Merkley said there still is a useful purpose in forcing a full 30 hours of debate on each nomination.
"One of the major strategies we can use is to educate America about who these folks are," Merkley said. "Donald Trump said he was going to drain the swamp, but the cabinet is full of swamp monsters," which he described as "bankers, Big Oil, billionaires and bigots."
As for Trump's latest executive order, which freezes refugee arrivals and visa requests from seven predominantly Muslim nations, Merkley said: "Right now, Lady Liberty is weeping," referring to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses."
Other executive orders set out preliminary steps toward a wall that Trump wants on the southern border with Mexico — a wall Mexico says it will not pay for — and withholding of federal funds from cities and states that decline to cooperate with stepped-up deportations of illegal immigrants.
Financing construction of a wall will require money from Congress.
Aiming for 2018
Merkley said Democrats will have to build a case against Trump and Republicans for the 2018 congressional elections. Republicans lead Democrats in the House, 240-193 with two vacancies, and in the Senate, 52-48.
Merkley said Democratic chances for a majority in the Senate will be tougher in 2018, when more Democrats than Republicans will be up for election, the reverse of 2016. (Neither Oregon seat is up.)
"But never let anyone tell you that something can't be done, or you are defeated before you even start," he said.
He recalled his own elevation from minority leader to speaker of the Oregon House in 2006, after Democrats gained four seats for their first majority in 16 years — and his long shot candidacy for U.S. senator in 2008 against two-term Republican Gordon Smith.
Merkley was responding to a question by Kezia Bledsoe, a Franklin High senior and member of the school's Constitution team. She had asked how the redrawing of congressional districts to favor Republicans in many states would shape the outcome of the 2018 elections — and she said later that Merkley did not answer that point.
"But I thought this meeting was a very important event for him to come and hear the needs of the people and their opinions," Bledsoe added.
Corrects Merkley quote by removing extraneous words. Adds Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary among Cabinet nominees opposed by Merkley.