Patty Murray won her first U.S. Senate campaign two decades ago as “a mom in tennis shoes,” turning an old insult into a powerful political tool.
This past November, she led Democrats as they expanded their majority in the upper chamber by turning opponents’ words and beliefs against them.
Now, as chairwoman of the Budget Committee, Murray is at the center of the country’s most contentious debate -- how to reduce the deficit and manage the debt -- by attempting to transform what she perceives as an election mandate into policy.
The 62-year-old, camera-shy senator from the Seattle area is in some ways the Democrats’ answer to Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the lower chamber’s budget chairman and a former vice presidential candidate who has garnered national attention in recent years for his financial proposals and command of economic minutiae.
Murray has served in the Senate for over 20 years, but unlike Ryan, she isn’t exactly a household name. Also unlike Ryan, she isn’t often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. Murray rarely appears on the cable television circuit or the Sunday morning news shows, but colleagues on both sides of the aisle describe the 5-foot politician as a workhorse legislator. And even Ryan gives her credit for doing last week what her predecessor had been unable to do for four years: introduce a Democratic budget. (Indeed, they shared a similar sense of humor about that feat last week: There was white smoke from the Vatican and the Senate produced a budget, each noted separately.)
The two chairs released competing proposals that exposed a stark divide between their parties regarding the country’s fiscal path. Most notably, Ryan plans to erase the deficit in a decade through structural changes to Medicare and cuts to Medicaid spending, while Murray plans to tame -- though not balance -- it over the same time span through a combination of tax increases and spending reductions. Both parties are using the opposition’s budget as a club, and members in both chambers up for re-election may have reason to be concerned about voting on them.
Both Murray and Ryan are tasked with rallying party colleagues around their respective plans, and getting their messages out to constituents across the country. Ryan’s is virtually wrapped in an enticing bow: Government will balance its checkbook just as families across the country do. A balanced budget, Republicans argue and some polls show, is easy for Americans to understand, though some of the proposal’s requirements may not be so popular. Murray’s message isn’t quite so tidy.
“Every family at some point says, ‘I’m going to buy a car; I’m not going to pay for the whole thing today.’ ‘I’m going to buy a house; it may be a 30-year mortgage.’ ‘I’m going to send my kids to college; I have to borrow money.’ How you manage that debt is critical,” she said in an interview Tuesday with RealClearPolitics. “We need to manage that. But no family, no business, no community -- no one – says, ‘I have cash only. That’s all I’m going to do.’ Because really, you can’t invest in what you need to be able to grow and be stronger in the future” without financing some of it.
She added: “Getting our deficit and debt in a manageable place is a really critical goal, but balancing our budget in 10 years is not a goal that allows our economy to be in a better place.”
Managing the debt instead of erasing it seems like a tougher sell, but Murray insists the public has already bought into the plan and rejected Ryan’s. “The whole election was about that. Mitt Romney was talking about reducing the rates and having it be revenue-neutral, and it was really clear that when you reduce the rates, as Paul Ryan was doing, that somebody pays more if it’s neutral,” she said, noting that home mortgage deductions, college tax credits and other tax breaks could be at stake. “I think the American public knew what this debate was about and they spoke out about it. I feel very good about that.”
Murray’s budget -- which includes $1 trillion in new taxes through closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy, and $1 trillion in spending cuts -- passed out of her committee on a party-line vote. Moderates like Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Angus King, a Maine independent, voted for the measure, a signal that vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in red states may come along when the proposal hits the floor this week. (Murray is confident the measure will pass.) But as a former chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Murray knows the politics of tough votes. North Dakota freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a top recruit last cycle, ran a campaign in support of a balanced budget and reducing spending, for example. Montana’s Max Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, is concerned that the budget may interfere with major tax reform efforts.
As expected, Republicans don’t take kindly to it. Asked whether there were items he could support, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch shook his head. “No, not any. We know Patty Murray’s budget is a political budget,” he said.
“I think the gap is wider than I would have expected,” said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. But he commended her efforts: “She also has spent a great deal of time personally in mastering the details, the numbers. She has a lot of influence with the leadership in the Democratic conference. Her members stay with her. And I think she also is clearly in sync with Majority Leader [Harry] Reid.”
Reid has been effusive in his praise of Murray recently. “Anytime I can say good things about Patty Murray, I do it,” he said. “She is a stunningly good, competent legislator. I don’t know of anyone that ever criticized her work ethic or the work that she does.” Reid, who is known for a masterful understanding of his members’ strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and relationships, chose Murray to chair the budget committee after she led the charge in padding his majority. He also selected her to co-chair the Super Committee in 2011, the bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers tasked with finding a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit. Murray was the only woman in the group. When asked about female leaders in the Senate, Reid noted Murray and eight others who chair committees. “There’s no question about it: Women have added something to the Senate only women can add.”
A bookcase in Murray’s office holds a framed picture from 2008 of 11 female Democratic senators, with President Obama in the middle. On a shelf below: a picture of Murray with the president and fellow Democratic leaders Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin in the Oval Office. Murray is standing in the center; her short blond hair and petite stature stand out among the four men in dark suits.
“I just think, how many women in this country balance their own budgets and [pay] their bills and make sure their family is stable?” Murray said when asked what she brings to the chair as a woman. “It’s something that women value a lot. I think one of the things women bring to this is a common-sense approach, and they really want to get something done. They don’t just want to wave a flag -- they want to accomplish something.”
Murray’s accidental entrance into politics came out of this sensibility. As a community college instructor in 1980, she protested impending budget cuts and won. (During this fight, a local legislator dismissed her as just a “mom in tennis shoes.”) She ran successfully for her district’s school board a few years later, and then became its president. She defeated a Republican state senator in 1988, and was elected to the U.S. Senate by a 10-point margin in 1992 -- dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” which sent five of them to the upper chamber.
Murray tried to build on that history through her recruitment efforts at the helm of the DSCC. Now, there are 20 women serving in the Senate, including freshmen Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Mazie Hirono, and Heitkamp.
On the Super Committee, it was not a matter of being one of the few women at table, "she is the woman at the table,” said Matt Canter, the communications director for the DSCC under Murray’s tenure. “She carried a lot of that weight. It wasn’t her preference, and it’s not the best thing for our country and for our party, but it was one of the reasons she tried to recruit strong, strong candidates.”
Murray also used Ryan’s budget to the Democrats’ advantage. “When the Ryan budget first came out in 2011, she felt it was a real driver of our recruitment,” Canter said. “A lot of the candidates we were talking to were motivated to get involved because of the kind of agenda Republicans were putting out.” A national debate over access to contraception and GOP gaffes on abortion and rape in key races last cycle also helped sink Republican challengers and strengthen the Democrats’ majority. Murray painted the opposition as tone deaf when it came to women’s issues especially.
Running the Senate’s campaign operation was a job no one wanted -- not even Murray. She chaired the committee in 2002, but 2012 had figured to be an especially difficult year for her party, with 23 seats at play. “When she took the job it was about as dark of a time for Democrats as any of us can remember, as there has ever been in our lifetime,” Canter said. Murray had just come off a difficult re-election fight of her own in 2010. Still, Reid begged her to take it and Murray eventually obliged.
She took fire for running the highly partisan group while also chairing the Super Committee. While her work for the DSCC bore fruit, the bipartisan deficit-reduction team’s efforts did not. The sobering lesson she learned from the failed commission is that the stalemate continues, even as the president courts Republicans to forge a deficit reduction deal in 2013. “People on that committee really wanted to accomplish something, but honestly, the trip[-wire] that did not allow the Republicans to come to compromise was they could not put revenue on the table. . . .They told me in person, they saw it clearly,” she said.
Asked if she thinks Democrats and Republicans can find middle ground between the two competing budgets, Murray isn’t sure. “I would not say ‘middle ground’ because Paul Ryan put out what he did last time and the American people rejected it in the election,” she said.
As budget chair, Murray combines her experience from the deficit group and the rhetoric from the campaign committee. She also challenges Ryan to move “his Tea Party Republicans” towards the middle on a budget, for example. On Tuesday, she blasted Senate Republicans on the floor for holding up a government funding bill. It’s clear Reid sees her as an important messenger.
Murray chuckles when asked if she is a numbers wonk. “I know the numbers,” she said. “But I know what the American people understand are the values in our budget. They understand the priorities and the goals we are trying to reach.”
And even in this new role, the one she has risen to after four Senate terms, Murray still embraces the image of a mom (now grandmother) in tennis shoes.
“It’s who I am,” she said. “The values of the family, taking care of each other, making sure you support each other. You can argue all day long, but at the end of the day someone has to decide what’s for dinner.”