WASHINGTON ― A few weeks after the 2013 government shutdown, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) compared the Republicans in the House to the preschoolers she once taught. To deal with a bunch of fractious, obstreperous 4-year-olds, she said, you need a plan.
When Murray made her comparison, she was about to sit down with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in what turned out to be the only significant successful bipartisan budget negotiation Congress has managed since the shutdown.
Four years later, the House is still roiled by a crowd of sharp-elbowed and feuding Republican lawmakers who can’t agree even on how to do the one thing they all say they want ― repeal Obamacare. But now, there’s a new alpha boy atop their playground monkey bars.
President Donald Trump outdid them all, belittling, bullying and insulting his way to the Oval Office.
Murray is familiar with the personality type.
“There is a bully in every classroom,” Murray said this week. “And the best way to teach other children in your preschool class that it’s not OK is to make it not OK.”
That is precisely what Murray and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are trying to do. Since there are only 48 senators on their side of the ledger, they lack the votes to beat back Trump and a raft of nominees that Democrats see as historically awful. What they can do is show the country and their Republican colleagues that it’s not OK. Murray is turning out to be Schumer’s deadliest weapon in that fight.
The greatest difficulty with that strategy is that Republicans don’t especially want to be shown. None have been willing to admit even that nominees might lie to them, and voted to confirm two who at the very least said things that were not true. They confirmed Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency chief Friday, even knowing that they had not reviewed thousands of emails that had just been released related to his environmental lawsuits.
Still, there have been some notable successes from the Democrats’ perspective, particularly with nominees going through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on which Murray serves as the top Democrat.
Chief among them is the withdrawal of labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, a fast-food maven who was fond of employing scantily clad women to peddle his Carl’s Jr. burgers, and whose restaurants have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for labor and safety violations.
The salacious ads and history of labor law infractions probably were not the daggers that did in the labor nominee, however.
Ironically, his troubles started with a video created by a woman who Trump floated as a potential presidential running mate on the Reform Party ticket in 1988 ― Oprah Winfrey, via her TV show. A video from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” featured Puzder’s ex-wife dressed in disguise in 1990 to allege domestic abuse.
That she had gone on the program had been known since shortly after Puzder’s nomination, but Winfrey’s producers stonewalled media attempts to obtain the episode. The Oprah Winfrey Network’s lawyers did temporarily provide a videotape to the HELP Committee that they refused to leave behind. Murray and her staff worked with committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to make sure other senators saw it ― or at least had a chance to. Although Puzder’s former wife, Lisa Fierstein, later recanted the allegations, it had an impact. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that she had seen the tape and wanted to make it public.
Murray has made a habit of maintaining bipartisan relationships and working across the aisle, passing things like the rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act. A firm member of the Pantsuit Nation, and a politician who launched her Senate career as a “mom in tennis shoes,” she politely and privately wielded a stiletto against Puzder, offering trenchant insights into Puzder’s attitudes in private conversations with Republicans in hallways and on the Senate floor. One thing Puzder said in an interview was particularly disturbing to the handful of Republicans who were prepared to oppose him.
“Someone asked him why he wanted to be secretary of labor, and he said that it would be the best job he could have ‘with his clothes on,’” Murray said. “I presented that to one Republican senator who said to me, quote, he doesn’t get it, does he?”
Whether it was specifically the video that felled Puzder can be debated. Revelations that he employed an undocumented immigrant as part of his household help for years hurt him with a number of conservative Republicans, as did Puzder’s advocacy for immigration reform.
For Murray, he was a walking highlight reel of all that is wrong with Trump.
“This is a president who got elected after a video came out of him on the bus with ‘Access Hollywood.’ When that happened, that was such a defining moment for many people,” Murray said. “But the people who voted for him said that’s OK, he won’t do this going forward. And yet to me his nominee shared many of those same sexist, horrible attitudes towards women.”
“That’s what I felt really took him down, and should have taken him down,” she said.
Murray and the Democrats also scored a near miss with an especially focused strategy to question then-Education Department nominee Betsy DeVos.
The billionaire charter school advocate botched numerous questions that Murray and other Democrats on the HELP committee had prepared in advance, and then followed up on. Especially glaring was DeVos’ lack of understanding of federal disability laws, exposed when Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked how her own disabled child would be able to get an education in one of the publicly funded charter schools that DeVos favors. DeVos did not understand that providers of public education are supposed to provide it to all of the public. Public schools spend significant resources to ensure disabled children get an education, and while charter schools are required to as well, they often fight the requirement.
Other questions showed that she was unfamiliar with basic debates in the education community. She was also caught in a possible lie when she said she had nothing to do with her family’s foundation giving $5 million to the anti-gay religious group Focus on the Family. Devos insisted it was all her mother’s doing. Murray came back with a tax filing from the foundation that listed DeVos as a vice president. DeVos claimed it was a clerical error, but records showed she was listed in the position for 17 years.
DeVos’ terrible showing cost her two Republican votes, and for the first time in history, a vice president had to break a 50 to 50 tie in the Senate to confirm her.
None of that work to bring down those nominees was an accident, Murray said.
“I felt from the beginning, this administration ― who I think expected to win ― was putting together a cabinet without doing the critical work that one should do at the cabinet in vetting people, in knowing what issues they might have,” Murray said. “So I directed my staff to do that with Betsy DeVos, with [Health and Human Services Secretary Tom] Price. And with Puzder.”
Aides familiar with the strategy said that Murray vowed to do that vetting herself when she came back to Capitol Hill after the election. She reassigned a slew of policy staff and turned them into temporary investigators, churning out detailed memos that were then shared with other senators and their staff. No other committee appears to have done as thorough a dive into the backgrounds of the nominees coming before them.
Heading into the DeVos hearing, Murray made sure to coordinate Democratic questions, to avoid overlap and make sure effective follow ups were delivered. When, for instance, Hassan asked DeVos about her role in the Prince Foundation, and DeVos demurred, Hassan was able to pull out tax documents with her name on them.
As each new embarrassment and unflattering detail emerged, Schumer would often highlight them in his morning Senate floor speeches that the Democratic leaders then spread further in news conferences.
Since Democrats themselves changed the rules around nominations in 2013 to allow confirmations to pass on simple majority votes, there’s little they can do beyond slowing down the process and trying to give the public enough time to see exactly who is ascending to power in the reign of Trump.
And Murray said she intends to keep showing why it’s not OK.
“As I have had constituents tell me since the day of the election, Senate Democrats are the only barrier we have to fight back against things that aren’t right coming from a Republican administration, Senate and House,” Murray said. “So, we’re it. We started working from day one to be the people who take that role on.”
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated the titles for Paul Ryan and Chuck Schumer.