As Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray attempts to get the first Democratic budget in four years passed on the Senate floor, she is positioning herself as a closer within her caucus.
Succeeding in what Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., dubbed “mission impossible” could elevate her status as a rising star in Democratic ranks.
The senator from Washington state is neither flashy nor a nerdy numbers wonk, but she is considered a substantive, hard-working leader who has the trust of her colleagues. And she knows how to twist arms when necessary to successfully navigate the floor.
Murray appears determined to use her committee post to promote messages that appeal to the Democratic base, such as protecting the middle class by promoting growth, preserving entitlements, and “calling on the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.”
“Our budget reflects the pro-growth, pro-middle-class agenda that the American people went to the polls in support of last election,” she said, unveiling the budget Wednesday at a committee hearing, where she broke the ice with a joke.
“I understand we have a new pope and a committee hearing to mark up a budget. History twice—so that’s good,” she said.
Murray overcame her first hurdle Thursday with the Senate Budget Committee passing the Democratic budget bill 12-10 along party lines. Unlike her predecessor, former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., she is not seen as someone whose driving goal is to orchestrate long-term deficit reduction. But, ironically, she might be in a better position to ultimately negotiate a grand bargain, should those talks get serious, because she starts further to the left and with arguably more solid Democratic support behind her.
“That gives her more capacity to make a deal. I think Kent had some folks on the left of his caucus who were suspicious of him, so that made it hard for him to do a deal,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., another former Budget Committee chair. “But she, on the other hand—it’s sort of like Nixon going to China—she has the ability, if she wants to lead on this, to bring her caucus with her. That is probably an advantage if she really wants to move toward getting fiscal responsibility in place.”
The Democratic budget proposal, which touts a “balanced approach” with equal parts spending cuts to revenue raisers (but never gets to balance), is meant to serve as the Democrats’ opening salvo in broader budget talks. Much like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal in the House, it has no chance of becoming law, nor does anyone pretend that it does. Boasting of a smorgasbord of investments intended to boost job growth, while “responsibly” cutting spending, it is not meant to serve as a middle-of-the-road attempt to find consensus. Still, the very act of Murray moving forward with it is earning her praise from Republicans, even though they plan to vote against it.
Murray might not be trying to make a big splash with novel proposals, but budget wonks argue it matters less what’s in the budget than whether she can successfully get it over the finish line.
“What you need to be as chairman of the Budget Committee is a master politician,” said Stan Collender, a former Democratic aide to both the House and Senate Budget committees who is now a director with Qorvis Communications. “If she wasn’t in one of the elite leadership roles in the Democratic Senate caucus [before], she’s going to be when this is over, because it looks likes she is going to get it done. In that sense, it almost doesn’t matter what is in the budget as long as it gets done.”
Conrad told National Journal Daily he frequently relied on Murray to do much of the heavy lifting during his long tenure on the Budget Committee, because she could convince members to support, drop, or merge amendments on the floor.
“When I had a tough assignment, I gave it to her, because I knew she would get it done,” he said. “She is really effective, and she has the trust of other members because she’s earned it.… People know her word is good. She can look you in the eye and say, ‘I can handle this,’ and you can put that in the bank, because she will get it done.”
For her part, Murray told NJ Daily that she attempted to hear out the wishes of her panel members and of the broader Democratic caucus.
“It’s important to really listen to what everybody’s concerns are and bring their thoughts and good work into the committee mark, and we did that, and I think came out with one that will allow everybody to participate,” Murray said. “My requirement is to get a vote out with 51 votes, and that is what I hope to do.”
This article appears in the March 15, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.