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Sen. Patty Murray: Poor Getting 'Lost In Shuffle' During Fiscal Cliff Talks

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WASHINGTON -- With legislators focused on looming cuts to defense spending and entitlement programs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told a gathering of progressives on Capitol Hill Tuesday that she is worried the most vulnerable groups depending on domestic programs may get “lost in the shuffle” during the deficit negotiations.

“It’s very concerning to me that so much of the focus in D.C. and across the country has been on the other half of sequestration -- the defense cuts,” Murray said. “I feel very strongly that while we certainly need to cut spending responsibly and get our debt and deficit under control, we shouldn’t do that on the backs of the families and children who can afford it least.”

Democrats and Republicans need to hammer out a deficit-reduction deal before the New Year to avert the so-called fiscal cliff -- the moment when the Bush tax cuts expire and drastic budget cuts hit defense and domestic spending. As Murray noted, those automatic cuts, known as sequestration, would include painful hits to programs that help needy families, such as child care funding, home heating assistance and job training for the unemployed.

Murray has said in recent months that Democrats may consider going “over” the fiscal cliff and letting the Bush tax cuts expire, thereby giving Republicans political cover not to renew the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Although she suggested it as a last resort, Murray, who was a co-chair of the supercommittee created by the Budget Control Act, reiterated the threat on Tuesday, saying Democrats should take the debate into 2013 rather than accept a deal that preserves tax breaks for the wealthy and doesn't provide funding for domestic programs.

"I don’t want us to go over the fiscal cliff, slope, or mountain or whatever. That provides a lot of uncertainty for the country," Murray said. “But taking an even worse deal simply for the sake of getting a deal would be deeply irresponsible, and it would hurt families far more than sequestration in the long run."

As for actually going over the cliff, "it puts us in a place nobody wants to be," Murray said. "But it puts the Republicans in a different place as well."

Liberals have been vocal about their desire to keep Social Security and Medicare cuts out of the deficit talks, while conservatives have warned that significant defense cuts could hurt a fragile economy. Less attention has been paid to the kind of non-defense discretionary spending that Murray was talking about, such as Head Start educational funding for needy children, or how such programs might fare in a “grand bargain” struck between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“These programs have been cut so much already,” Murray said. “They’re the one part of the budget that’s shrinking, not growing, and the families that depend on them have already sacrificed enough.”

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