Sen. Patty Murray walked into a tiny room cramped with cameras and reporters on the third floor of the Capitol on Tuesday night grinning—unusual for the Washington state Democrat, most often described as serious. But she quickly got down to business.
“We have broken through the partisanship and the gridlock and reached a bipartisan budget compromise that will prevent a government shutdown in January,” she said.
After guiding a budget resolution through the Senate for the first time in four years and spending months in tough negotiations with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Murray delivered to Senate Democrats their second fiscal miracle this year: a two-year budget agreement.
While neither side claims it is perfect, the deal could break the long-standing fiscal impasse and ensure some budgetary certainty. The question is whether she and Ryan can sell it to their colleagues. In some ways, Murray is the ideal ambassador for Democrats.
She can be tough on her own caucus, enjoys the respect of key Republicans—including Ryan—and has the kind of profile in the nation’s capital better geared to accomplishment than publicity. And when it comes to Democratic ideals, she’s a true believer.
“I think her demeanor and style is tough without being offensive,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “My father used to say, ‘It’s important to disagree without being disagreeable.’ And I think she has that quality.”
As Ryan put it, “She’s a tough and honest negotiator. She’s fought hard for her principles every step of the way, and I want to commend her for hard work.”
While Ryan has a big personality and is known to crack jokes—he can occasionally be seen snickering with Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen during conference-committee hearings—Murray is viewed as both warm and serious.
Ryan is used to the national stage, making him an easy target for Democrats. But Murray, the fourth-highest-ranking member of her party in the Senate, is little known outside of the two Washingtons.
“She’s not going to go in there and grandstand and make big, huge speeches, throw out a lot of bumper-sticker-like talk,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who has known Murray since he ran for the state Legislature in 1990. “She’s going to try to get something done.… I think there’s no better-suited person for what is an extraordinarily difficult task.”
Despite their differences, Murray and Ryan get along remarkably well, according to several sources who have sat in on their discussions.
When they’re not haggling over how to pay for reductions in sequestration cuts, Murray and Ryan talk about their children. Murray’s son and daughter are both grown, while Ryan still has three kids in school. Murray also chides him about his Green Bay Packers—the Seattle Seahawks are 11-2 this season—and both are avid fishers. Murray, who fishes for salmon with her husband in Puget Sound, claims to be the better fisherman, but adds, “We agree that we fish for different kinds of fish.”
There’s no doubt they’re an odd coupling. At 6-foot-1, Ryan towers over Murray’s 5-foot frame, creating a problem for photographers. But Murray is hardly a pushover.
Last March, during the debate on the Senate budget proposal, Murray spent roughly 14 hours presiding over her colleagues as they plowed through more than 100 amendments for consideration. At about 4 a.m., Murray was getting tired.
Drawing on her experience as a preschool teacher, the usually soft-spoken senator told her colleagues to sit down and be quiet. “I distinctly in my head was thinking, ‘Sit on your mats,’ ” she says, laughing. “I didn’t say that. But they did.”
“There was a little bit of a schoolmarm tone to it,” King remembers. “And everybody sat down.”
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said he was impressed. “I’ve had my opportunities to herd cats before,” he said. “That was a pretty darn good job of herding disparate cats.”
The open process also endeared Murray to Republicans. During the 13 hours of debate, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking member on the Budget Committee, praised Murray’s leadership more than nine times. When it was all over, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “one of the Senate’s finest days in recent history.”
That’s a big leap for the “mom in tennis shoes” who was an education activist before rising to the Legislature, where Washington state politicians balked at her decision to run for the U.S. Senate after just one term.
“I think we [have] finally reached a point where people have stopped underestimating her,” Smith said.
Murray grew up in Bothell, Wash., a sleepy commuter town about a half hour’s drive from downtown Seattle. Her father, David Johns, was a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient who ran a five-and-dime store in what was then a small town of 1,000 people.
But when Murray was just 15 years old, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that would soon prevent him from working. Her stay-at-home mother of seven was forced to get a job for the first time, while Murray and some of her elder siblings found work of their own. It was then that Murray got a first taste of the help government can provide.
Murray’s family relied on veterans benefits to help care for her father. They received food stamps, and her mother used federal assistance to get an accounting degree at a local technical school. Thanks to Pell Grants, Murray and all six of her siblings went to college. Today, they are a lawyer, a firefighter, a teacher, a sportswriter, a computer programmer, a homemaker—and, of course, a U.S. senator.
Ryan, whose father died when he was 16, grew up under similar circumstances. His mother went back to school and got a job, while Ryan used Social Security benefits to help put himself through college. Ryan has said that those experiences gave him a look inside federal social programs. But they left him with very different views than Murray.
“I think at a time when the world looked pretty bleak, I just felt like our country was there for me,” Murray said. She worries that government won’t be there for families like hers in the future.
“The Republican idea that we don’t need the government and government is a negative influence in our lives is I think very personally offensive to Patty because of her background,” said Washington state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz, who served with her in the Legislature.
While the budget deal will be dissected in coming days, both Ryan and Murray will be selling it to their respective chambers, a huge task with opposition to the deal already lining up in the days and hours before the particulars were even announced.
But many in Congress, including Murray, say the rewards that come with a period of fiscal calm may be equally great.
As King put it, “If she can pull off a deal with Paul Ryan that gets us back to somewhere in the vicinity of passing budgets, we ought to put a statue of her out there in the hallway.”
Michael Catalini contributed to this article.
This article appears in the December 11, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as ‘A Tough and Honest Negotiator’.