WOMEN
11/09/2013 09:42 am ET | Updated Nov 09, 2013

Patty Murray: Democrats' Unlikely Iron Lady Of The Budget Battle

WASHINGTON -- When your opponents' legislative style bears frequent comparison to the antics of angry toddlers, perhaps what's needed is a lead negotiator with a schoolteacher mentality and a knack for discipline.

Democrats think they may have that in Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who so famously sticks to the script that reporters are tempted to call her boring.

She happens to have started her career wrangling obstreperous children -- which turns out to have been excellent preparation for the details-oriented approach that Murray has adopted in politics and that she intends to bring to the high-stakes budget negotiations that began last week with Republicans and continue Wednesday.

"I taught preschool," Murray told The Huffington Post in an interview in her Capitol Hill office this week. "You don't walk into a class with 4-year-olds without a direction of where you're going to go."

Murray most certainly has a plan for the budget conference with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). It boils down to offering various compromises and seeing if Republicans are willing to bite after their disastrous, poll-punished bid to defund Obamacare by shutting down the government.

"I look at this as the Republican opportunity to stand up and show there can be adults in their party and help our country find compromise and move us forward as a country," Murray said. "If they opt not to do that, and this budget conference ends up in the same place with no resolution, I think it's going to hurt them in the long run. I think there are more of them that see that, and I'm hopeful they stand up."

The conference committee aims to find ways to replace the sequestration budget cuts that Congress' last failed negotiations left, and to hash out ways to fund the government after the current stopgap bill expires Jan. 15 and to raise the debt ceiling after Feb. 7.

To get there, Murray is offering a menu of items that Democrats don't like, but have been willing to swallow, if Ryan and company will compromise. Among the proposals are some $350 billion in entitlement cuts spelled out in the budget the Senate passed in March. Her iron rule is that Republicans get nothing if they are not willing to give something in the way of raising revenue. And replacing the sequester cannot mean simply boosting defense and cutting domestic programs.

"First of all, it's going to be defense and non-defense. There's going to be revenue that is part of the package, and then if there's revenue, that will kind of outline what we're willing to give in terms of spending cuts," Murray said.

"We're not going to cut Medicare and impact benefits for seniors to replace defense cuts," she added. "I don't think the country would back that. We are going to look and are willing to look at a series of things that we can do on the cutting side." She said cuts wouldn't include yoking Social Security payments to so-called chained CPI -- changing the way inflation is measured so that benefits grow more slowly than under the current inflation index.

Ryan offered no concessions when he sat down next to Murray for the first conference committee meeting, saying Democrats had better forget about trying to raise revenue as part of the solution to America's debt problems. "I want to say this from the get-go: If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere," said Ryan.

He exuded a certain type of charm and confidence as he opened the talks, appearing unchastened by the government shutdown debacle.

"You’ll notice there are three senators for every congressman -- so as we see it, that's an even match," Ryan joked. "I like to think quality beats quantity."

Murray stuck to her script and made no jokes when it was her turn to speak. But the diminutive grandmother, somewhat dwarfed by the former vice presidential nominee, likely agreed with his quip -- at least the part about brains trumping bulk.

And she thinks the smart thing for Republicans to do is, well, stop being babies.

"I think the Republicans have to sit back and say, 'Do we want to be part of that governing party system and compromise system, or do we want to be the group in the corner that yells and screams?' " Murray said. "That's what caused the government shutdown, the -- I'm sorry, I used to teach preschool -- the temper tantrum on the floor, to show how somehow they are powerful."

The question of power is an interesting one for Murray. She cuts such an unassuming figure that it's easy to underestimate her. But she comes off a 2012 election cycle in which she shepherded the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to improbable wins. She's also the fourth-ranking member of the Senate leadership, making her arguably the most powerful elected woman in politics.

And in the context of budget talks, she's almost a direct extension of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Aides, who spoke anonymously because they did not have permission to talk about the personal relationship, said Murray has near-carte blanche from Reid because they are on the same page philosophically about the budget. "When they talk about this stuff, they finish each other's sentences," one aide said.

That authority was on display in the late days of the government shutdown, when Democrats showed signs of caving. A plan introduced by Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was gathering steam among red state Democrats and eventually won the backing of seven Democrats. The plan was built on the premise that for Republicans, it was a concession to reopen the government and raise the borrowing cap. It asked Democrats to accept a two-year delay of Obamacare's medical device tax, and to lock in sequester cuts for six months.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threw his support behind the plan, but on the Saturday before the shutdown ended -- a critical day of negotiations -- Murray shut it down.

A Democratic leadership aide said that during a closed-door meeting, Murray beseeched her colleagues not to force the country into six more months of meat-ax sequester cuts. Such a move would also weaken her hand in upcoming budget negotiations, she argued. Democrats emerging from that meeting said her plea won the day.

"Patty Murray makes a very important point," Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said after the meeting. "If she is bound going into a budget conference by the Paul Ryan number, where is her bargaining power? Some Senate Republicans were insisting on that. But that’s unfair."

Murray marched over to Collins on the Senate floor to deliver the answer herself.

"It was cordial. It wasn't heated, though it may have been animated," a leadership aide said.

Collins declined to comment on the exchange but said she has a "terrific relationship" with Murray, whom she characterized as both a colleague and a friend.

"I have nothing but good things to say about her," Collins told HuffPost. "She's strong, she works very hard, she's no-nonsense, down-to-earth and she knows how to bring people together and get the job done."

And that's where she sees herself as she and Ryan head for their next meeting, Nov. 13, a month before their deadline to produce an agreement.

"The country has had enough of the temper tantrums and the non-compromise," Murray said, "People believe strongly in things, and they expect us to come back here and fight for things, but they also get that a legislative democracy works by people coming together."

Whatever the talk, few observers expect the conference committee to produce a deal. But with Murray as the calm, reasonable-seeming face of the Democratic position, the stakes may actually be higher for the GOP, whatever Ryan's smarmy opening joke may have suggested.

"I think there are a lot of people praying that we do our jobs, which is compromise," Murray said. "If the Republicans choose not to and say no revenue, not a dime, nothing, I think that they will feel the backlash and I think many of them will realize that."

And while she said she believes Republicans would again pay the price for another showdown, Murray insisted she'd prefer a deal.

"I'm a Democrat. I want Democrats to be in the majority, I want to us to be the party that sets the priorities -- I'm all for that," she said. "But we also need a strong Republican Party of good people, who come here, who passionately care for things but are also willing to sit down and compromise. That's what makes a democracy work."

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