Patty Murray in 19 Takes

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

No. 1: The Fixer

Patty Murray may be the dullest, most unremarkable member of the United States Senate. Two decades in, she lacks any major legislation to her name, isn’t associated with an issue, rarely appears on television, almost always speaks in gray generalities, and seems to have spent the bulk of her time focused on sending earmarks back to Washington state. As one staffer puts it, the most interesting thing about Murray is how uninteresting she is. She’s also the most important politician you’ve never heard of.

As conference secretary, she’s the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate, which makes her the highest-ranking woman in the chamber. Last year, she chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), spearheading the party’s surprising string of victories in the November elections. Thanks to her efforts, the Senate now has 20 women, the most ever. And as chair of the powerful Budget Committee, she is going up against Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman whose budget has shaped the political conversation for two years and counting. Without many noticing, she’s become the party’s fixer.

 

No. 2: A Children’s Story

One afternoon in late March, a few days after she had remained on the Senate floor until 5 a.m. marshaling Democratic colleagues to pass her budget, Murray perched on a preschooler-size chair at the Denise Louie Education Center in Seattle’s International District. A picture book, King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, lay in her lap, and more than a dozen well-behaved Head Start students sat cross-legged before her. Reading to kids is not unusual for a U.S. senator—like eating a pastrami sandwich at a Jewish deli, it’s a classic photo op—but for Murray, this was also a throwback. Before she first ran for elected office, Murray worked as a preschool teacher. 

King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub tells the story of a king who refuses to leave his beloved bathtub. Courtiers and flatterers from across the realm come with schemes to lure the king from the tub—a fishing trip, a masquerade ball—but nothing dislodges him. All hope is lost until an ordinary court page, who has been lingering in the background, offers an impossibly simple solution: Why doesn’t someone pull the drain plug? “Glug, glug, glug,” Murray read. “That’s how he got him out,” she ad-libbed. 

Straightforward. Unglamorous. Practical. It’s almost as if Murray wrote herself into the story. The purpose of the event was to show how the sequester—the series of indiscriminate cuts that remove $1.2 trillion from the government over the next decade—will force schools like Denise Louie to slash their budget. But the event, like almost any event involving an elected figure, had another function. It reminded the folks back home that the former preschool teacher is now one of the power centers in the U.S. Senate.

 

No. 3: Bio

Personal history: Born in 1950 to Beverly and David Johns. Raised in Bothell, Washington. Twin sister of Peggy. Father a World War II vet who ran a five-and-dime store, disabled by multiple sclerosis when Murray was 15. Family turns to government assistance. Marries Rob Murray in 1972. Currently maintains a home on Whidbey Island. Two children. Two grandchildren.

Degrees: Bachelor of arts in physical education from Washington State University. 

Work experience: Preschool teacher (1977–1984). Parenting instructor at Shoreline Community College (1984–1987).

Political experience: Activist for environmental and educational issues (1983–1988). Told by a state senator that she was “just a mom in tennis shoes. Go home. You can’t make a difference.” Adopts it as her rallying cry. Member of Shoreline School District Board of Directors (1985–1989), Washington state senator (1989–1992), and U.S. senator (1993–Present).

 

No. 4: The Murray Budget 

Democrats have not even tried to present a budget for the past three years—and for good reason. To craft their 2014 budget, Murray had to satisfy competing segments of the party, each with its own interests, concerns, and priorities. Mark Warner of Virginia needs to show his constituents he’s worried about the deficit, while Jeff Merkley of Oregon needs to show that he is protecting retirement programs. If the budget were just an accounting of positions and programs, it would be less of a challenge. Lawmakers are often happy to split the difference behind closed doors. But a budget is more political than programmatic, and every Democrat will have to defend its whole even if he or she disagrees with some of its parts. With 20 Democratic seats up for re-election, Murray has to assuage the fears of vulnerable senators. On top of all this, Murray must draw a sharp contrast between her budget and the ones produced by the Republicans and the White House. 

That Murray had to negotiate among different factions and ideologies means that her budget isn’t the most liberal on the table. This distinction goes to the budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which calls for trillions in new investment for infrastructure, health care, and education and for lower defense spending. Murray’s budget is less a difference in kind than a difference of degree. She offers a modest increase in stimulus and restores funding to social programs. In a nod to centrist Democrats, she includes steps toward long-term deficit reduction, achieved by overhauling the tax code, cutting military spending, and saving on interest. Unlike the White House budget, which trims Social Security benefits, there are no cuts to retirement programs, save those found in the Affordable Care Act. It was Murray’s decision to hold the line on entitlements that earned her the most praise from liberal activists and observers. 

Murray’s budget comes close to representing the Democratic consensus on spending and the size of government. It achieves nearly $2 trillion in deficit reduction by evenly splitting new revenue and spending cuts. But, according to Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, this was no foregone conclusion. “The basic structure was set,” he says, “but not the proportions and not the details of the numbers. It evolved through the deliberations.” 

The ten Democrats and two independents on the Budget Committee met five times behind closed doors to air grievances. Liberal members argued that new revenues should provide around 80 percent of the deficit reduction. After all, they contended, the vast bulk of debt reduction since 2010 has come from spending cuts. Rather than putting divisions up for a vote and letting the negotiations devolve into an intra-party squabble, Murray allowed each side to have its say while pushing toward consensus. When rifts couldn’t be bridged, Murray would reserve the final decision for herself, always keeping to her low-key tenor and avoiding crushing any egos. “She got where she wanted through inclusion and persuasion, not intimidation and threats,” King says. “She explicitly said at the latter stages of the committee process: ‘I know that everybody here isn’t going to like the result, but we’re going to have to hang together if we’re going to get to a place where we can ultimately negotiate a successful budget at the end.’” The Democrats voted unanimously to move the budget out of committee. 

On March 23, the Senate passed Murray’s budget, 50 to 49. Only four Democrats opposed it, all representing red states and facing re-election in 2014: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. (Baucus has since announced he will not be seeking another term.) To corral almost all of her Democratic colleagues was a triumph of Murray’s pragmatic style. That style, though, was about to run up against Republican intransigence. 

Moors

No. 5: The Accidental Winner

In late 1991, three years after she beat a Republican incumbent to win a state senate seat, Murray announced that she was challenging Democratic incumbent Brock Adams for the U.S. Senate. She was jumping to one of the highest levels of American politics and, by her own admission, wasn’t prepared. “Patty told me she had never slept away from home by herself since she had been married,” says Elizabeth Sullivan, who worked on the campaign. “Whenever she was away, she had been with Rob.”

Murray hadn’t mastered public speaking, had no name recognition, and was terrible at fundraising. “She didn’t like to talk about money, she didn’t like to think about money, she didn’t want to ask for money,” Sullivan says. “We always had to pair her with someone who could actually make the ask for a check.”

Murray entered the race mostly to make a statement. “Patty didn’t feel like kitchen-table issues were being addressed,” Sullivan says. “So she said, ‘I know I probably can’t win, but I have to run since you can’t just have a bunch of old white guys sitting around deciding things for American families.’”

Murray’s determination was rewarded with good luck. In March 1992, The Seattle Times published an exposé detailing accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Adams. He dropped his re-election campaign the same day. “Suddenly,” Sullivan says, “this went from something that probably wasn’t going to happen to something that really could.” 

Murray was not the first choice of the party establishment. Support from EMILY’s List, which had been founded seven years earlier to elect Democratic women to the Senate, proved key. “We were very serious about doing a lot of investigation into whether our women candidates could win,” says founder Ellen Malcolm. “When we got into a race, we were kind of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for women candidates. It gave her huge credibility.” In a Seattle Times poll after the primary, one out of three voters cited Murray’s gender as an important factor. 

In the general election, Murray faced Representative Rod Chandler, a five-term moderate Republican. He outspent Murray 2 to 1, though that gap would have been even wider had it not been for EMILY’s List. Chandler mocked Murray’s lack of experience, citing his years in Congress to bolster his bona fides. The tactic backfired. Murray tapped into the national swell of anti-incumbent fever. She stuck with her mom-in-tennis-shoes persona. Like the primary, the general election showcased an ability that Murray has applied throughout her career: a talent for turning a perceived weakness—her gender, her inexperience, her lack of charisma—into an advantage. 

Pundits’ predictions of a close contest proved unfounded. National networks called the race at 8:02 P.M. as Murray sailed to an eight-point victory. “We keep hearing it’s the year of the outsider,” Murray said at her Seattle victory party. “But that’s really a strange message. I am part of a middle-class American family. We’re typical people. They call us outsiders. But what this election is all about is making us insiders. We’re the insiders.” 

 

No. 6: The Description Used in Nearly Every Interview about Patty Murray

  • “There is no better workhorse than Senator Murray.” —Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
  • “She’s a workhorse and not a show horse.”—Mazie Hirono, senator from Hawaii
  • “There’s nothing about Patty Murray that says ‘show horse.’” —Ed Zuckerman, 1992 campaign consultant
  • “She’s just a workhorse.” —Anonymous congressional staffer
  • “There’s a tradition of Senate insiders who wield enormous influence who don’t get a lot of public notice. There have probably always been a lot of senators who are more show horses than workhorses. Some are both. And then there are fewer who are workhorses and not looking for the spotlight.” —Bill Samuel, director of Government Affairs at the AFL-CIO
 

No. 7: Mentors

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. When Murray arrived in the Senate in 1993, she sought out the loquacious chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, who viewed himself as the last defender of the chamber’s arcane traditions. Murray once described her decision as going to “the master’s knee to learn the rules of the Senate.” It was a smart choice, one that demonstrated her keen strategic sense. Byrd was so impressed Murray cared about the institution that he rewarded her with a spot on Appropriations, the ATM that allocates congressional spending. “I knew that a lot of policy comes when you write the checkbook,” Murray says. “At home, when you decide where your money is going to go, you decide what the policy is going to be.” 

Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Murray’s 1992 class increased the number of women in the Senate from two to six. She was heading to a workplace hostile to women. A Washington Post poll released just as Murray arrived found rampant sexual harassment on the Hill; one out of nine women surveyed said she had been harassed by a member of Congress, and nearly half said they feared retaliation if they reported an incident of sexual harassment. Mikulski, who had been elected six years earlier, organized the female caucus into a series of bipartisan monthly dinners. “There’s no manual on how to be a senator, right?” Murray says. “There is no manual on how you help your state. Barbara Mikulski brought us together for a conversation and has done it for every election since for all the women coming in, to help them get past the ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ stage to the ‘How do you pass legislation?’ stage.” 

No. 8: The Pragmatist

There’s something peculiarly undefined about Murray’s ideology. She’s a liberal, a West Coast liberal to be precise: strong on social issues, the environment, workers’ rights, and the government’s role in society. She hews closely to the Democratic talking points of the day. But it’s hard to discern a coherent vision or theory behind her views. She is as far left as you can go without alienating the centrists in the party. More than anything, she’s a pragmatist. Success trumps belief in the “right” things. At the same time, Murray doesn’t venerate moderation for its own sake—she’s no Rahm Emanuel. “She’s a strong progressive,” says a former Budget Committee staff member, “but she won’t tilt at windmills, she won’t force a vote on something she knows she’s not going to win.”

 

No. 9: Senator Earmark 

Earmarks, or “pork,” are legislative provisions that direct funds toward specific projects in the lawmaker’s home state. Their main purpose is to grease the wheels of lawmaking. Don’t support a particular bill? No worries. If you vote for it, we’ll give you $10 million to build a new maritime museum in your state. Earmarks also serve a secondary purpose. By providing money to build libraries, bridges, and job-training centers, they are tangible evidence of government. They allow lawmakers to go back to their districts and states and say, “Look, this is what I did for you.” If democracy is about representing the people’s interests, then there is a lot to be said for earmarks.

For clean-government advocates, however, earmarks embody much of what’s wrong with politics. In their view, earmarks often go to projects that interest groups demand, not to what a community needs. They waste money. Worse, they smack of bribery. John McCain devoted a disproportionate amount of his 2008 presidential campaign to railing against earmarks. President Barack Obama pledged to veto any earmark-laden bill in his 2011 State of the Union: “The American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects.” The Senate banned them in 2011.

Murray was a master at obtaining earmarks. Between 2008 and 2010, for example, she sponsored 596 earmarks and directed nearly $1 billion in federal funds back to Washington state, placing her in the top ten of Senate earmarkers. This is why Mikulski, another superb generator of earmarks, refers to Murray as a “bread-and-butter Democrat.” For years, Murray’s press office churned out press releases touting the money she had brought to Washington. How was Murray able to direct so many federal dollars to her state? Sitting on the Appropriations Committee, which she has done for her entire time in the Senate, is the best possible position from which to sponsor projects. 

 

No. 10: A Sampling of Earmarks, 2008–2010

  • Peer-reviewed breast-cancer research program, $138,000,000
  • Columbia River fish mitigation, $83,256,000
  • Construction for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, $15,000,000
  • Lake Washington ship canal, $7,012,000
  • National Guard Youth Challenge Program, $12,000,000
  • Mud Mountain Dam, $3,830,000
  • 2010 Olympics Coordination Center, $4,500,000
  • High-speed aluminum towable boat lifts, $4,000,000
  • Portable launch-and-recovery system for unmanned aerial-vehicle operation, $3,200,000
  • Skokomish Tribe Reservation road improvements, $1,330,000
  • National Methamphetamine Training and Technical Assistance Center, $1,300,000
  • Dawson’s Place Child Advocacy Center, for the acquisition and renovation of a new facility, $974,000
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington, for expansion of the existing youth facility, $974,000
  • YWCA, Yakima, for infrastructure improvements to domestic-violence facility, $960,000
  • Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, for skills training for the aerospace industry, $470,000
  • Organic cropping, Washington State University, $264,000
  • Northwest Center, King County, for providing and expanding academic and vocational resources to developmentally delayed or disabled persons, $195,000
 

No. 11: Climbing the Ladder

No one chairs a Senate campaign committee out of goodwill. For two years, you do almost nothing but campaign. You recruit candidates, raise money, and subject yourself to fierce second-guessing. If you succeed and win seats for your party, you receive a pat on the back. If you fail and lose seats, you’re blamed.

Why, then, would anyone take the job? Because it’s a path to leadership. The list of former chairs for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee includes Lloyd Bentsen (future vice-presidential candidate), George Mitchell (future majority leader), John Kerry (future presidential candidate), Jon Corzine (future governor), and Charles Schumer (eager to be majority leader).

Which is why it came as a surprise when Murray agreed to chair the DSCC for the 2002 cycle. In her years in office, she had avoided the spotlight and had never expressed any ambitions to be a national figure. Was it because it was a chance to be the first woman to lead the committee? “No, not at all,” she says. “I thought it was important, and I thought it was an important part of me helping others be successful and to give back to what other people did for me.”

In which case, her tenure was a mixed bag. Her team raised more than $143 million, beating the previous record by $40 million, but Democrats lost two seats. For the first time since 1914 a president’s party had taken control of the Senate in a midterm election. Most observers, though, attributed the outcome to George W. Bush’s post-9/11 popularity and the death of Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who had been favored to win. 

Murray’s reputation at the end of her tenure was unscathed. In fact, it probably was enhanced. She had proved that she could manage large egos and oversee an organization with myriad moving parts. “She put together a strong staff. They raised a lot of money. Their recruiting was strong,” The Cook Political Report wrote at the time.

After she stepped down as chair, Minority Leader Tom Daschle offered Murray an informal spot with the leadership. Two years later, after the 2004 election, Harry Reid appointed her assistant floor leader—a nominal position she used to expand her presence behind the scenes. When Democrats retook the Senate majority in 2006, Reid encouraged her to run for secretary of the conference. She was elected without opposition.

 

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

No. 12: Political Savvy (D.C. Edition)

During leadership press conferences, Murray tends to stand in the rear, only stepping forward when it’s her turn to speak, quickly retreating when reporters toss questions. 

Whether she avoids the spotlight as a conscious strategy (it allows her to be the consummate inside player), as a leadership style (“People are most familiar with the loud, more male type of leadership,” says Mazie Hirono), or as a reflection of her temperament (that’s not how her ego expresses itself), or all three, Murray is one of the most camera-shy members of the Senate. By jetting home to Whidbey Island almost every weekend, she rarely makes the Sunday TV circuit. 

“There are many senators with sharp elbows when it comes to press conferences and microphones,” says Dick Durbin, senator from Illinois, Democratic majority whip, and one of Murray’s closest friends. “Patty is not one of them. She’s sensitive to other members and their political and personal needs. Over time that really creates a positive impression.”

 

No. 13: A Typical Interview with Patty Murray

March 25, 2013

Why did you take a second stint as DSCC chair in 2012?

“I really care about my country and about its future. I think it’s really important to have really good people in elected office writing policy, passing policy, and managing our country. You don’t just hope it happens. You go out and work to make it happen.”

You’re not on TV as often as many of your colleagues. Is that a conscious decision?

“My job is to help move our country forward, in whatever way. Whether it’s working with veterans, whether it’s writing a budget, whether it’s environmental policy, and I try and do my job as best as I can. To me, what’s important is the work and getting people to do it, to help people understand it and to come home and remember who I am and why I go to work every day.”

March 27, 2013

What do you read? 

“I’m an eclectic reader and an eclectic listener.” 

What do you listen to? 

“Again, I’m very eclectic when it comes to all types of things. I just like to learn and hear different things.”

 

No. 14: The Toughest Campaign

The question in 2010 wasn’t whether the Democratic Party was going to lose seats in Congress but how many. The economy remained in critical condition, the Affordable Care Act was unpopular, and the public saw little value in the stimulus. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) targeted Murray. Defeating her would send a message to liberals that even a well-liked three-term veteran was vulnerable.

The committee enlisted Dino Rossi, a former state senator in Washington who had run for governor in 2004 and 2008, to run against Murray. But what Rossi and the NRSC didn’t realize was that Murray had been anticipating a year like 2010. According to her campaign manager Jeff Bjornstad, she understood early on that she might be facing her most difficult re-election. “It was probably in ’09,” Bjornstad says. “She was smart enough to go, ‘Hey, this might be a little bit different than previous elections.’” 

Murray amassed more than $17 million, including more than $3.5 million from political action committees and other outside groups. It was the most she had ever raised, and the total bested Rossi by more than $7 million. The funds came from Murray’s traditional donors: EMILY’s List was the top individual contributor, followed by Microsoft, the University of Washington, and Boeing. She received one of her largest chunks from software engineers, exactly the kind of group that would cultivate a longtime senator from Washington state.

The Republicans’ most inspired television ad went after Murray’s trademark image. It featured a Murray look-alike, wearing tennis shoes, walking across prostrate members of a family, who are grimacing in pain. On the screen appeared the words “Patty Murray: 18 Years on Our Backs.” But it wasn’t enough to give Rossi an edge over Murray’s long-standing popularity and her war chest. When election night came, she finished with a 14,000-vote advantage that, over the next several days, expanded by tens of thousands, giving her a final margin of 52.3 percent to Rossi’s 47.6 percent. With a five-point spread, it was the closest election of her career.

 

No. 15: The Underestimated 

  • “She doesn’t mind being underestimated because, I think, people are surprised when she out-hustles them.” —Rick Desimone, chief of staff, 1999–2006 
  • “Patty is the kind of person who, if you tell her she can’t do something, that just fires her up. That was just the worst thing you could say to her.” —Ed Zuckerman, 1992 campaign consultant 
  • “The political establishment, as often happens with women candidates, underestimated Patty.” —Ellen Malcolm, founder of EMILY’s List 
  • “You underestimate Patty Murray at your own peril.” —Teresa Purcell, 1992 campaign manager
 

No. 16: The Campaigner

No one wanted to chair the DSCC in 2012. The 2010 midterms had been a bloodbath in which the party lost a near-record number of seats in the House and saw its Senate advantage slip to a bare majority. Because Democrats were defending almost half their seats, bouncing back in the Senate would be a difficult, grinding task. 

Soon after the midterms, Harry Reid was scrambling, offering the chair to anyone within earshot. Charles Schumer, Mark Warner, Al Franken, Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark Udall, and Michael Bennet all turned him down. Murray also rebuffed Reid. “A lot of people come to the committee as a sort of stepping-stone to leadership,” says Matt Canter of the DSCC. “She was already in leadership!” But Reid circled back, enlisting White House Deputy Chief of Staff and soon-to-be Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina, and this time Murray assented once more to direct the Democrats’ senatorial campaigns.

“Pretty much no one thought we would win,” Murray says. Part of her early reluctance had been exhaustion from her tough 2010 re-election, but that also gave her a better grasp of the political climate than many of her colleagues. Her message to the incumbents: Waiting until the summer before Election Day would be too late. “This is no longer a fourth-quarter game,” Canter says.

Of the 23 seats Murray would have to defend, eight were competitive: Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. She knew early on that she wanted to identify strong women candidates. “Patty reached out to me long before I thought seriously about running for the Senate,” says Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “She was gently encouraging, willing to offer candid advice and to talk about both the good and the bad of running for office.”

In the years since Murray first ran for the Senate, the conventional wisdom about women candidates had been turned on its head. Many political scientists now argue that having a woman on the ballot might be an advantage. “I open the door for women rather than closing it,” Murray says, “and I think that makes a big difference in talking to people about running for the Senate.” 

Recognizing that the election cycle began earlier than ever, Murray and the DSCC waded into the Democratic primaries. In December 2011, the committee endorsed then-Congresswoman Hirono over former Congressman Ed Case in the Hawaii primary. Murray’s preference for female candidates, though, didn’t prevent the DSCC from supporting Congressman Chris Murphy over former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz in the Connecticut primary. The committee had concluded he was the stronger candidate. The committee also exploited the Tea Party insurgency. In Missouri, where Claire McCaskill faced defeat, it spent hundreds of thousands during the GOP primary to bolster the right-wing credentials of Congressman Todd Akin, the weakest candidate in the field. The gambit paid off when Akin told an interviewer that rape exceptions in abortion laws were unnecessary, because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that down.” He quickly became a national embarrassment. 

Unlike her Republican counterparts, Murray let candidates build their own brands, independent of the national party. If Richard Carmona, who was running in Arizona, needed to shy away from his party affiliation to win, he would still receive all the help he needed. Murray may have refrained from micromanaging the campaigns, but she remained in constant touch. “I just remember the moment at which the worst of the attack ads had appeared on television,” Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin says, “she was sort of following everything really closely. Just getting this voicemail message going, ‘I know what this is like right now and carry on, you’re going to get through this,’ it was lovely.”

The committee raised $146 million, surpassing Murray’s 2002 record by more than $2 million and outpacing the Republicans by almost $29 million. The slate of female candidates proved essential for gaining that haul. The DSCC set up independent fundraising committees that focused on boosting the women running for office. “We did cross-country road shows where all the women got on a plane to speak for the others,” Mikulski says. “It was phenomenal. One weekend, we went to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, back to Washington state, over to Missouri to help Claire McCaskill.”

On Election Day, the Democrats successfully defended all of their Senate seats, except for Nebraska, expanded their majority with pickups in Massachusetts, Indiana, and Maine, increased the number of avowed liberals, and brought in more women to the chamber than any time in history. “When I came to the Senate, senators were named Tom, Dick, and Harry,” Mikulski says. “Now they’re named Tammy, Heidi, and Mazie.”

 

No. 17: Political Savvy (Back-Home Edition)

It’s been more than three decades since Murray first visited the Washington state capitol to protest education cuts only to be told that she was “just a mom in tennis shoes. Go home.” Rather than recoiling from the put-down, Murray took ownership of it. She embraced the persona during her first campaigns and holds on to it today. “I am a mom in tennis shoes—there’s no doubt,” she says. “If I could have them on right now, I just would.” She hosts an annual Golden Tennis Shoes luncheon back home, and her D.C. office is littered with tennis shoes—some actual footwear, others art pieces. 

Both genuine and manufactured, the mom-in-tennis-shoes is a humble guise, one that demystifies the grandeur of the Senate office. It’s a facade Murray has used throughout her career, a means to disarm voters and colleagues who might otherwise be threatened by a powerful woman in politics. 

 

No. 18: The Budget in Theory

Here’s how the budget process is supposed to work, what members of Congress refer to as “regular order.” 

At the beginning of the calendar year, the president submits a budget request to Congress, a comprehensive package of the administration’s intended spending and revenue plans for the next fiscal year.

The House and Senate budget committees then draft their own resolutions, which are submitted to their respective chambers by early April. In the Senate, the resolution cannot be filibustered. Debate is left open, which allows members from both parties to offer amendments. In the House, debate is closed off and amendments prohibited. Once each chamber has approved a budget resolution, selected senators and representatives sit down in a conference committee, where they work through their differences and produce a joint budget. The House and Senate then approve the resolution.

This, it turns out, is incredibly difficult. Not only is it hard to get 51 senators or 218 representatives to agree on a budget resolution, but when each party controls a chamber and has diametrically opposed visions of the federal government—Republicans want to shrink it, Democrats don’t—reconciling two budgets is all but impossible. The last time both chambers agreed on a budget was in 2009, when Democrats had overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate.

Everyone in Washington likes to talk about the 2014 budget, but the fact of the matter is there’s almost no chance the two sides will reach an agreement.

 

No. 19: The Budget in Practice 

Once Murray’s budget cleared the Senate on March 23, it should have headed toward conference committee where it would be reconciled with the House plan. But Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, chair of the House Committee on the Budget, refused to select anyone to the committee.

After last year’s election, Murray reached out to Ryan, and on December 13 they had breakfast in the Senate dining room. The two had never met. Both agree that it was a cordial conversation.

“We talked more personally about his family, my family, what brought us into politics, kind of what drives you,” Murray says, “which is really important to know about somebody if you want to negotiate.” 

“I like her,” Ryan says. “She’s easy to talk to. We very clearly have different perspectives, different philosophies. But her personality makes her easy to deal with, easy to talk to.”

“I understand that I will have to give up on some things I care about,” says Murray. “But the only way we get there is if everyone compromises. I have that capability. The question is whether Paul Ryan does.”

What Murray is not saying publicly: It’s not in the GOP’s interest to end the budget impasse. Crisis governance—debt-ceiling threats, shutdowns—allows Republicans to claim a new scalp every few months. Ryan acknowledges as much. “I think a lot of members think that we have very few leverage devices in the minority and must use the ones we’ve got for good policy,” he says. “It’s simple, I think.” Ryan and Murray continued to meet throughout April. Ryan resisted every overture, noting the cavernous gap between their two plans. Murray and her Senate colleagues grew increasingly frustrated, and on April 23 Harry Reid took to the Senate floor, asking for unanimous consent to appoint conferees to a budget committee. Standing for the Republican Party, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania objected and, at least for the time being, Murray’s budget—her first substantial legislative achievement—lay dormant.

 

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