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Juan Williams: Sen. Jeff Merkley is the man of the year in Congress

The 2013 winner of top political player on Capitol Hill is…

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

The senator stands out as the leader of the Democrats’ historic move to go to the “nuclear option,” ending the paralysis by threat of filibuster that tied the Senate in knots for the last five years.

The junior senator from the Beaver State showed a lot of political bite, in the form of persistence, and has become a left-wing hero as a result.

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Merkley, with a big assist from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), won the biggest vote of the year on Capitol Hill by convincing Democrats they were being trapped by Senate tradition into acquiescing to GOP obstruction.

The two first-term senators successfully argued to the Democratic caucus that the GOP’s use of more than a quarter of the filibusters in history against President Obama’s nominees was one of the root causes of today’s dysfunctional Congress.

They charged GOP obstruction with undermining the right of the Democrats’ in the Senate to govern — and also with undercutting the voters’ choice of Obama in two presidential campaigns.

Merkley and Udall also made the case that resentment caused by the GOP’s frequent use of “holds” and filibusters polarized the Senate and led to the failure to deal with major issues from job growth to a defense authorization bill to immigration reform.

At year’s end, the facts bolster those persistent arguments. Only 56 pieces of legislation have been passed by the 113th Congress and signed into law by the president. By comparison the 80th Congress, which was called a “Do-Nothing Congress” by President Truman, passed 906 laws.

Merkley and Udall’s years-long effort in calling for filibuster reform finally prevailed in late November. That vote opens the door to a newly active Senate and a rush of votes on judicial nominations and agency heads. The entire government is about to get new life.

“This is a terrific vote for the U.S. Senate,” said Merkley at a one-man press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put legislation forward calling for a simple majority vote to confirm a president’s nominees. (The new rules do not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation.)

“The American people want this institution to function,” Merkley explained. “They want to see it take on the big issues. They don’t want to see the entire calendar of the year eaten up by paralyzing process on nominations.”

The key to Merkley’s victory was getting senior Democrats, particularly Reid, to see changing the filibuster rules as a necessary response to corrosive, extremist politics.

Merkley’s voice could be heard when Reid spoke on the Senate floor before the vote: “The American people believe Congress is broken … ,” Reid said, pointing to polls showing Congress with its lowest approval rating in history. “And I believe they are right. The need for change is so very, very obvious.”

Merkley even convinced Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to support the reform despite her worries about abortion rights if, at a future date, a Republican majority takes over and the filibuster is diminished. The GOP needs six seats to take over next fall. Ultimately Feinstein decided to go with Merkley.

“I’ve sat on the Judiciary [committee] for 20 years and it has never, ever been like this,” Feinstein told reporters. “You reach a point where your frustration just overwhelms and things have to change.”

Obama was obviously pleased by Merkley’s success. According to the White House, there are still 189 Obama executive nominees tied up in the Senate. That includes 85 jobs in posts at cabinet-level agencies. In addition, there are 52 judicial nominations awaiting Senate action, including 17 who simply need to get a vote.

The GOP recently blocked all three Obama nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia without any regard to their qualifications. They claimed any nominee from the Obama White House tilted the court and its power to rule on federal agency regulations to the left.

Minutes after the vote, the president cheered Merkley’s argument that history demanded changing the rules:

“Today’s pattern of obstruction, it just isn’t normal,” he said in an impromptu White House press briefing. “It’s not what our founders envisioned. ”

While Merkley’s logic appealed to Democrats, it infuriated Republicans and possibly increased acrimony between the parties. The GOP charged that a large class of Senate newcomers — only 22 of 53 Democrats held their seats before 2006 when Democrats won the majority — acted without a sense of what it is like to be in the Senate minority.

“They’re rustling their inexperienced feathers,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also seemed to have Merkley in mind when he complained: “There are members that have never been in the minority … who basically drove this.” He called the vote “foolish.”

Merkley is a fool on the Hill to his critics but he made history. He is this year’s Man of the Year in Congress.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.