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Patty Murray Takes Lead on Budget for Dems

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 20, 2013

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A bookcase in Murray’s office holds a framed picture from 2008 of 11 female Democratic senators, with President Obama in the middle. On a shelf below: a picture of Murray with the president and fellow Democratic leaders Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin in the Oval Office. Murray is standing in the center; her short blond hair and petite stature stand out among the four men in dark suits.

“I just think, how many women in this country balance their own budgets and [pay] their bills and make sure their family is stable?” Murray said when asked what she brings to the chair as a woman. “It’s something that women value a lot. I think one of the things women bring to this is a common-sense approach, and they really want to get something done. They don’t just want to wave a flag -- they want to accomplish something.”

Murray’s accidental entrance into politics came out of this sensibility. As a community college instructor in 1980, she protested impending budget cuts and won. (During this fight, a local legislator dismissed her as just a “mom in tennis shoes.”) She ran successfully for her district’s school board a few years later, and then became its president. She defeated a Republican state senator in 1988, and was elected to the U.S. Senate by a 10-point margin in 1992 -- dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” which sent five of them to the upper chamber.

Murray tried to build on that history through her recruitment efforts at the helm of the DSCC. Now, there are 20 women serving in the Senate, including freshmen Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Mazie Hirono, and Heitkamp.

On the Super Committee, it was not a matter of being one of the few women at table, "she is the woman at the table,” said Matt Canter, the communications director for the DSCC under Murray’s tenure. “She carried a lot of that weight. It wasn’t her preference, and it’s not the best thing for our country and for our party, but it was one of the reasons she tried to recruit strong, strong candidates.”

Murray also used Ryan’s budget to the Democrats’ advantage. “When the Ryan budget first came out in 2011, she felt it was a real driver of our recruitment,” Canter said. “A lot of the candidates we were talking to were motivated to get involved because of the kind of agenda Republicans were putting out.” A national debate over access to contraception and GOP gaffes on abortion and rape in key races last cycle also helped sink Republican challengers and strengthen the Democrats’ majority. Murray painted the opposition as tone deaf when it came to women’s issues especially.

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Running the Senate’s campaign operation was a job no one wanted -- not even Murray. She chaired the committee in 2002, but 2012 had figured to be an especially difficult year for her party, with 23 seats at play. “When she took the job it was about as dark of a time for Democrats as any of us can remember, as there has ever been in our lifetime,” Canter said. Murray had just come off a difficult re-election fight of her own in 2010. Still, Reid begged her to take it and Murray eventually obliged.

She took fire for running the highly partisan group while also chairing the Super Committee. While her work for the DSCC bore fruit, the bipartisan deficit-reduction team’s efforts did not. The sobering lesson she learned from the failed commission is that the stalemate continues, even as the president courts Republicans to forge a deficit reduction deal in 2013. “People on that committee really wanted to accomplish something, but honestly, the trip[-wire] that did not allow the Republicans to come to compromise was they could not put revenue on the table. . . .They told me in person, they saw it clearly,” she said.

Asked if she thinks Democrats and Republicans can find middle ground between the two competing budgets, Murray isn’t sure. “I would not say ‘middle ground’ because Paul Ryan put out what he did last time and the American people rejected it in the election,” she said.

As budget chair, Murray combines her experience from the deficit group and the rhetoric from the campaign committee. She also challenges Ryan to move “his Tea Party Republicans” towards the middle on a budget, for example. On Tuesday, she blasted Senate Republicans on the floor for holding up a government funding bill. It’s clear Reid sees her as an important messenger.

Murray chuckles when asked if she is a numbers wonk. “I know the numbers,” she said. “But I know what the American people understand are the values in our budget. They understand the priorities and the goals we are trying to reach.”

And even in this new role, the one she has risen to after four Senate terms, Murray still embraces the image of a mom (now grandmother) in tennis shoes.

“It’s who I am,” she said. “The values of the family, taking care of each other, making sure you support each other. You can argue all day long, but at the end of the day someone has to decide what’s for dinner.” 

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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