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Patty Murray Takes Lead on Budget for Dems

Patty Murray Takes Lead on Budget for Dems

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 20, 2013

Patty Murray won her first U.S. Senate campaign two decades ago as “a mom in tennis shoes,” turning an old insult into a powerful political tool.

This past November, she led Democrats as they expanded their majority in the upper chamber by turning opponents’ words and beliefs against them.

Now, as chairwoman of the Budget Committee, Murray is at the center of the country’s most contentious debate -- how to reduce the deficit and manage the debt -- by attempting to transform what she perceives as an election mandate into policy.

The 62-year-old, camera-shy senator from the Seattle area is in some ways the Democrats’ answer to Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the lower chamber’s budget chairman and a former vice presidential candidate who has garnered national attention in recent years for his financial proposals and command of economic minutiae.

Murray has served in the Senate for over 20 years, but unlike Ryan, she isn’t exactly a household name. Also unlike Ryan, she isn’t often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. Murray rarely appears on the cable television circuit or the Sunday morning news shows, but colleagues on both sides of the aisle describe the 5-foot politician as a workhorse legislator. And even Ryan gives her credit for doing last week what her predecessor had been unable to do for four years: introduce a Democratic budget. (Indeed, they shared a similar sense of humor about that feat last week: There was white smoke from the Vatican and the Senate produced a budget, each noted separately.)

The two chairs released competing proposals that exposed a stark divide between their parties regarding the country’s fiscal path. Most notably, Ryan plans to erase the deficit in a decade through structural changes to Medicare and cuts to Medicaid spending, while Murray plans to tame -- though not balance -- it over the same time span through a combination of tax increases and spending reductions. Both parties are using the opposition’s budget as a club, and members in both chambers up for re-election may have reason to be concerned about voting on them.

Both Murray and Ryan are tasked with rallying party colleagues around their respective plans, and getting their messages out to constituents across the country. Ryan’s is virtually wrapped in an enticing bow: Government will balance its checkbook just as families across the country do. A balanced budget, Republicans argue and some polls show, is easy for Americans to understand, though some of the proposal’s requirements may not be so popular. Murray’s message isn’t quite so tidy.

“Every family at some point says, ‘I’m going to buy a car; I’m not going to pay for the whole thing today.’ ‘I’m going to buy a house; it may be a 30-year mortgage.’ ‘I’m going to send my kids to college; I have to borrow money.’ How you manage that debt is critical,” she said in an interview Tuesday with RealClearPolitics. “We need to manage that. But no family, no business, no community -- no one – says, ‘I have cash only. That’s all I’m going to do.’ Because really, you can’t invest in what you need to be able to grow and be stronger in the future” without financing some of it.

She added: “Getting our deficit and debt in a manageable place is a really critical goal, but balancing our budget in 10 years is not a goal that allows our economy to be in a better place.”

Managing the debt instead of erasing it seems like a tougher sell, but Murray insists the public has already bought into the plan and rejected Ryan’s. “The whole election was about that. Mitt Romney was talking about reducing the rates and having it be revenue-neutral, and it was really clear that when you reduce the rates, as Paul Ryan was doing, that somebody pays more if it’s neutral,” she said, noting that home mortgage deductions, college tax credits and other tax breaks could be at stake. “I think the American public knew what this debate was about and they spoke out about it. I feel very good about that.”

Murray’s budget -- which includes $1 trillion in new taxes through closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy, and $1 trillion in spending cuts -- passed out of her committee on a party-line vote. Moderates like Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Angus King, a Maine independent, voted for the measure, a signal that vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in red states may come along when the proposal hits the floor this week. (Murray is confident the measure will pass.) But as a former chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Murray knows the politics of tough votes. North Dakota freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a top recruit last cycle, ran a campaign in support of a balanced budget and reducing spending, for example. Montana’s Max Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, is concerned that the budget may interfere with major tax reform efforts.

As expected, Republicans don’t take kindly to it. Asked whether there were items he could support, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch shook his head. “No, not any. We know Patty Murray’s budget is a political budget,” he said.

“I think the gap is wider than I would have expected,” said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. But he commended her efforts: “She also has spent a great deal of time personally in mastering the details, the numbers. She has a lot of influence with the leadership in the Democratic conference. Her members stay with her. And I think she also is clearly in sync with Majority Leader [Harry] Reid.”

***

Reid has been effusive in his praise of Murray recently. “Anytime I can say good things about Patty Murray, I do it,” he said. “She is a stunningly good, competent legislator. I don’t know of anyone that ever criticized her work ethic or the work that she does.” Reid, who is known for a masterful understanding of his members’ strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and relationships, chose Murray to chair the budget committee after she led the charge in padding his majority. He also selected her to co-chair the Super Committee in 2011, the bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers tasked with finding a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit. Murray was the only woman in the group. When asked about female leaders in the Senate, Reid noted Murray and eight others who chair committees. “There’s no question about it: Women have added something to the Senate only women can add.”

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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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