Among the 12 members of the congressional deficit-cutting supercommittee, there are committee chairmen, Sunday news show regulars, anti-tax purists, and Patty Murray.
Murray, 60, is not only the lone woman on the panel, she also is the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is charged with protecting the party’s Senate majority in the 2012 elections.
The decision by Majority Leader Harry Reid to name the bespectacled Washington senator to serve as the Democratic co-leader of the supercommittee, which held a closed-door meeting last evening, drew criticism among Republicans and government ethics advocates.
“I think her job at the DSCC consumes a lot of time and requires her to take a lot of public positions that might very well create an obstacle to getting this job done,” said Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.
Groups including Common Cause and Public Citizen are urging Murray and other supercommittee members to cease fundraising while the panel deliberates. Murray hasn’t agreed, attending such events as a Sept. 13 reception at the National Museum of Women in the Arts that asked donors to give as much as $30,800 to the Senate Democrats’ re-election account.
“As much as I respect Patty Murray, she has placed herself in a very perilous conflict of interest situation,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Washington-based Public Citizen.
Murray’s refusal to bend to such demands is likely to be no surprise to Reid, who calls her “my workhorse,” someone he taps to manage difficult assignments.
In 2004, when Reid suddenly had to attend a funeral, Murray stepped in to manage dozens of amendments on an annual budget blueprint on the Senate floor.
After Reid decided in 2009 that the late Senator Robert Byrd, then 91 years old, was too frail to oversee floor debate on an Iraq war spending bill, he tapped Murray to replace the iconic and stubborn appropriator.
This year, several senators declined appointment to the DSCC chairmanship, lest they risk being in charge when Republicans take the majority. Murray’s agreement to do a second tour makes her both the first and second committee chairwoman. Murray also is the first woman to be appointed to a special congressional committee assigned to create a blueprint for reducing the deficit.
On the supercommittee, Murray, who declined an interview request, and her co-chairman, Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, by Nov. 23 must find $1.5 trillion in budget savings over a decade. If they succeed, the House and Senate would consider the plan by Dec. 23. A stalemate on the supercommittee, evenly divided between the parties, would trigger $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts in defense and domestic programs such as education.
Reid of Nevada said in an interview that he’s confident Murray can manage the re-election effort while also crafting a deficit-cutting deal.
“You look around and you’ll find the busiest person is usually the best,” he said. “She’s the busiest; she’s the best. She can handle both of them.”
First elected in 1992, making a leap from the statehouse to the U.S. Senate, the Seattle native has been part of Reid’s leadership team since 2006. The daughter of a disabled World War II veteran, she is the first woman to lead the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. When she’s not legislating, she takes to quiet pursuits, such as salmon fishing in Puget Sound.
Murray doesn’t gravitate toward the television klieg lights. A tenacious worker, she has a reputation for knowing how to find political leverage in policy battles as much as she does for resolving them.
In 2005, Senate Republicans rebuffed Murray’s calls for more funding for veterans’ health care. Later, it became known that the agency was experiencing a shortfall.
Then-Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican leader and now a presidential candidate, proposed $1.5 billion in added funding for the program.
“We were in error,” he said on the Senate floor on June 29, 2005. “Senator Murray was right.”
In her 2010 re-election campaign against Republican former state Senator Dino Rossi, she aligned herself with Boeing Co.’s fight to win a $35 billion Air Force contract, weighing in with the World Trade Organization and working with the Washington state delegation to push the Pentagon to act.
Murray and Boeing
Boeing, which employs 81,000 people in her state, made a rare endorsement in the race. Amid an anti-Democratic wave, Murray bested Rossi by 118,766 votes out of 2.5 million cast. In February, Boeing was awarded the Pentagon contract.
Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Murray was well positioned to take advantage of a “lack of focus” by Rossi. “She’s likeable,” Wilbur said. “She’s a class act and has good staff. Those things mean something in a close race.”
Murray’s relationship with Boeing is one that government ethics groups worry could influence her actions on the supercommittee. If the supercommittee fails to reach an accord, the automatic cuts that would follow could slash about $500 billion from defense programs during the next ten years, which could threaten funding for Boeing’s contract.
‘Conflict of Interest’
“Clearly, that’s a conflict of interest,” Holman said. “Boeing is a major company in her state and she has a very strong interest in making sure whatever decision comes out does not hurt Boeing.”
Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Murray, said the senator’s “only interest is in putting forward a balanced and bipartisan plan that is fair to the ordinary working families she has always fought for. Every senator in Congress has major companies in the states they represent and to suggest that that alone represents a conflict is fairly shortsighted.”
Thus far, Murray has advocated the Democratic line, speaking about the effect of spending cuts on the middle class and the need for tax increases. She said at a Sept. 22 hearing that “every serious bipartisan commission” agrees that tax increases are needed.
“It’s going to mean looking at every part of our budget and realizing that there is spending that has grown too fast, job investments that still need to be made, entitlements that are expanding too quickly, and a tax code that’s become riddled with corporate giveaways and special interest carve-outs for the richest Americans,” she said.
Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a smaller-government advocacy group in Washington, said the test will be whether Murray is willing to make significant entitlement cuts to achieve a deficit-cutting plan in an election cycle in which she has advocated using Republican support for cutting Medicare benefits as a campaign issue.
“If it weren’t for the fact that she is chairing the DSCC, she would be a plus on the committee,” Bixby said. “She’s high-ranking on the budget committee and someone who’s very interested in the nuances of policy and in working across party lines.”
Murray can tap a reservoir of goodwill in both parties, lawmakers said. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Murray bridged partisan differences when she managed the Iraq war bill. “She handled it with a seriousness of purpose that reflected well on the Senate,” Cochran said.
Murray’s advantage is that she’s not entirely aligned with either the liberal or conservative wing of her party, said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.
“She’s a real fighter -- she has very strong opinions and she’s very persistent,” Lieberman said. “On the other hand, she’s not an extreme ideologue, which means she’ll be capable of negotiating a bipartisan agreement.”