What Patty Murray’s HELP Committee Would Look Like

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.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
July 24, 2014, 4 p.m.

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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