The Woman Who Got It Done for Democrats

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) hold a press conference to announce a bipartisan budget deal, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, at the U.S. Capitol on December 10, 2013 in Washington, DC.
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Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Dec. 10, 2013, 4:13 p.m.

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 Catalin contributed to this article.
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