Sen. Patty Murray is quietly moving up the Democratic ranks after having been called on within the past year to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and to co-chair the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.
More and more often, Sen. Patty Murray seems to be finding herself a victim of her own competence.
Though the Washington state Democrat is still viewed through the “mom in tennis shoes” lens that she developed so successfully on the 1992 campaign trail, she accepted the least-coveted job in Washington, D.C., when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tapped her last year to be the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm in what likely will be an unforgiving cycle. The Nevada Democrat called on her again last month to co-chair the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction — the super committee tasked with cutting at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.
There’s a reason Reid keeps selecting her for the party’s most difficult positions: Murray is quietly one of the most even-keeled, influential and trusted Members of the Senate. And it’s hard to find anyone, on either side of the aisle, who will dispute that.
“She’s respected by the entire caucus and certainly by Harry; that’s why he chose her to chair this. It reflects what she brings to leadership — which is a lot of energy, usually a down-to-earth approach,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
When approached to describe Murray, fellow lawmakers and top staffers often resort to clichés, from the “mom in tennis shoes” refrain to what Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) calls her focus on the “macaroni-and-cheese issues.” Mikulski contrasted that with the “macro” issues the powerful super committee must address.
Reid’s selection of Murray for the super committee helm last month came with less drama and baggage than other choices. She’s not the face of the party’s messaging operation, like Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), nor does she have ties to other deficit-reduction groups, like Durbin, who was a member of the “gang of six.”
Sometimes, it even seems like Murray’s role as Senate Democratic Conference secretary — the No. 4 party position — is to adeptly baby-sit others on the leadership team.
“Oftentimes, she’s keeping the three other guys — Reid, Durbin, Schumer — grounded, keeping them on what the ultimate message has to be if they start to stray from it,” one Democratic aide said.
The “mother” analogies underscore Murray’s unassuming public persona in a building filled with characters. “She’s sort of an enigma. You know, she just keeps her head down and does the job at hand,” a Republican leadership source said. But that tack also masks her influence behind the scenes and how she might perform in two extremely difficult and distinct roles.
Though she is less of a partisan lightning rod atop the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee than Schumer was in previous cycles, Republicans were quick to attack her position as essentially the party’s top fundraiser as a conflict in leading the deficit panel. That criticism has mostly died down, however.
“She has two very important but very different responsibilities, and she understands that they’re responsibilities of very different kinds,” said fellow super committee member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former campaign chief himself. “Patty Murray is clearly someone you want to hand the ball to when you want to get something done.”
Some have suggested Murray’s value in leadership derives partly from her gender, and sources say it certainly didn’t impede Reid’s super committee picks, especially when leaders faced criticism last spring that not a single woman was selected to serve in debt talks with Vice President Joseph Biden.
“Reid really wanted to choose a woman,” said an aide familiar with the Majority Leader’s thinking. “But he also needed someone he trusted to be his info pipeline — and I think [others on the panel] would take opportunities to freelance at will, but Patty would not keep Reid in the dark in an attempt to not spoil it.”
But for those who think her gender was the tipping point for Reid, others point to the fact that she is one of the most senior Democrats on both the Budget and Appropriations committees. Indeed, Reid has tapped her for other thankless tasks, such as when ailing Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in 2007 and 2008 was unable to perform the duties of shepherding spending bills on the Senate floor. Murray became the de facto floor manager for many appropriations bills at that time.
Multiple Democratic leadership sources pointed to last spring’s debate over the continuing resolution and the last-minute stand Democrats took against House Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood as one of Murray’s most significant contributions to the party’s messaging efforts.
In the final 48 hours before government shutdown, Murray managed the debate, delivering floor speeches and holding a press conference with the Senate’s Democratic women.
But her dual roles this year also come with risks. When Murray last ran the DSCC in 2002, Democrats lost the majority, and the party is in danger of a repeat next year. Similarly, Democrats and Republicans have been privately skeptical that the members of deficit panel will be able to reach an agreement by their Nov. 23 deadline. Murray’s fellow co-chairman is conservative firebrand Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), and the committee is filled with leadership loyalists on both sides.
But if she succeeds in leading the bipartisan, bicameral group to a deal and minimizes damage in the 2012 elections, Murray could position herself quite nicely for what comes next in a town that has a long memory.
She already secured the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee after agreeing to lead the DSCC; veterans’ issues have long been her passion. But when Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) retires at the end of next year, she will also be in line to take over his spot. Plus, one Democratic leadership aide noted that she’s currently No. 4 in leadership and not planning to leave those ranks anytime soon, even if she won’t publicly lobby for an elevated position.
“I think everybody around here loves to speculate on that sort of stuff: Why is this person doing this? What’s in their future? I can tell you with pretty good authority that that is not the game she’s playing. She doesn’t make choices like this based on what’s next,” another top Democratic staffer said. “There’s no crescendo here in the back of her brain, though she is putting herself in a better position to advance her goals and values.”
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.