Murray Announces Intent to Take HELP

Patty Murray confirmed Friday that she plans to succeed Tom Harkin as the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee next year, where she is expected to play a prominent role defending the health care law and trying to forge compromises on stalled education policy.

The Washington Democrat currently chairs the Budget Committee and had been anticipated to take the gavel of the HELP panel after Harkin, D-Iowa, retired, if Democrats retained control of the chamber. With control of the Senate flipping into GOP hands, Murray will serve as the ranking member of the committee while Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is expected to serve as chairman.

“I will fight as hard as I can to make sure that that the voices, values, and priorities of students, workers and families, are heard loud and clear,” Murray said in a statement.

Harkin and Alexander had a number of successes getting legislation through a divided Congress, and Murray – known for brokering a budget agreement with House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. – could help build on their record.

In the education realm, she worked both with HELP Republican Johnny Isakson and with House Republicans to pass a broad workforce investment overhaul (PL 113-128) this summer. 

Though she’s worked for bipartisan victories, she can also be counted on to champion progressive ideals like protecting the 2010 health law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) and raising the minimum wage.

On health issues, Murray's priorities include ensuring women have access to contraception and abortion services. She led the Senate effort to upend the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling by introducing legislation (S 2578) that would prohibit employers from denying employees and their dependents coverage of a health service that is required under federal law, and prevent businesses from using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141) to get around those requirements.The Senate came a few votes short in July during a procedural effort to cut off debate on the bill. 

Murray also supports continuing a two-year boost in payments for Medicaid primary care doctors included in the health law that is set to expire at the end of the month. A spokeswoman said Murray will continue pushing for the funding extension next Congress, as well as for continuing three other health programs funded in the overhaul that support community health centers and loan repayment and training for health professionals.

In education, Murray will play a key role in efforts to reauthorize the long-stalled elementary and secondary education law known as No Child Left Behind (PL 107-110) and the Higher Education Act (PL 110-315), which expires at the end of fiscal 2015.

Though she’ll be open to compromise with Alexander on things like reducing testing at the elementary level and changing penalties for colleges that fail to appropriately address sexual assaults, her efforts to expand federal supports for preschool programs and create new mechanisms to reduce student loan debt are more likely to put her at odds with her panel’s Republicans.