The heir apparent on the influential Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is reluctant to publicly accept the title.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the current Budget Committee chair, says she’s made no decisions yet about where she will end up in the next Congress. And indeed it’s an open question whether Democrats will retain the chamber.
But lawmakers, former Senate aides, and lobbyists who know the committee’s inner workings well say the top Democratic spot on the committee is Murray’s if she wants it when Sen. Tom Harkin retires later this year.
Murray shook her head when asked Thursday when she might decide if she wants the position.
“We’re still in the middle of this session and like everybody else, we’ll look at the opportunities when we have a new Congress,” she said.
Indeed, the decision won’t be announced publicly until after November. Democrats traditionally adhere to strict seniority to decide committee slots. That would mean Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland could have dibs at the HELP slot. But, privately, aides say Mikulski does not plan to leave the top spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
So what would a Murray-chaired HELP Committee look like?
Lobbyists and aides suggest there would be a degree of continuity, and that Murray’s and Harkin’s principles overlap. But expect Murray to take with her to HELP a style she developed while on the Budget Committee, a predilection for what one Senate aide called a “people-focused, rather than a numbers-focused,” approach. Expect plenty of teachers to testify, for instance.
Mary Kusler, a lobbyist with the National Education Association, a teachers’ union, doesn’t see much difference between Harkin’s stewardship of the committee and a possible Murray chairmanship. From Kusler’s perspective, Murray is the closest thing to an ideal lawmaker, having earned high honors from the union last year.
If anything, Kusler said, Murray goes into the committee predisposed to addressing education issues. For instance, the federal government pulled Washington state’s No Child Left Behind waiver this year, a move Murray opposed.
A list of other possible priorities include the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — known in its current form as No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 and has been beset by partisan disagreements.
Asked what her top priorities are as a senior member of the committee, Murray focused on health care.
“I think the priorities of the HELP Committee are really the priorities of this country today, which is to make sure that we go beyond the debate of repeal or keep the health care [law] itself the way it is,” she said. “How do we ensure we reach the goal we all set out to — to make sure that everybody has access to affordable, quality health care?” she said.
There is also a chance that the renegotiation of a Washington state longshoremen’s union contract that expires next year could attract her attention, according to another former Senate aide.
There are some signs that lobbyists are preparing for Murray to take the reins from Harkin.
One lobbyist who has pushed legislation before the committee said a colleague worried that because of her education-focused background, Murray could home in on that area more than on the committee’s other jurisdictions.
“My advice — get in there,” the lobbyist said. “Start up that conversation about that issue.”
Such conversations have already begun, according to the lobbyist.
Murray has a reputation both as a bipartisan dealmaker and a liberal standard-bearer. She crafted an elusive two-year budget deal last year with her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, but she also led the Senate Democrats’ messaging and legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. She’s a two-time former chair of the party’s electoral arm, and a current member of leadership.
“I think she’s a gutsy woman who’s earned her spurs here and done a really good job for them — not so good for us, but a really good job for them,” said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who also sits on the HELP Committee.
Murray has written more HELP bills — 16 — than other senior members of the panel, including Bernie Sanders and Barbara Mikulski. Staff denies that this could be construed as a sign she’s transitioning to the top Democratic slot on HELP. Outsiders, though, have a different view.
“I don’t think she’s concerned about having to build a resume,” said one former senior Democratic Senate aide. “I would say it’s probably a combination of her policy interests and her staff knowing that this is a likely ascension in this committee and getting her ready for this.”
Some question why Murray would want to leave Budget, where she’s made a name for herself and where she fortified leadership’s estimation of her value since brokering last year’s deal.
For one, the HELP Committee is a powerhouse in a Congress that nowadays accomplishes little. Under Harkin, the panel has seen 14 bills signed into law this Congress, more than any other committee.
There is another reason, though.
Murray is a former teacher who famously won her first Senate campaign as the “mom in tennis shoes,” a pejorative term-turned campaign slogan that helped send her to the Capitol.
“The jurisdiction of the HELP Committee is Patty Murray’s core,” said another former Senate Democratic aide. “It would take an awful lot not to go to HELP.”
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