The other major factor, of course, was political. Senate Democratic leaders’ highest priority through 2012 was maintaining their majority as they faced what they and others believed was going to be a bruising election cycle. A budget resolution is a nonbinding measure, and leaders did not want their vulnerable members to unnecessarily cast politically risky votes in the budget “vote-a-rama” that typically accompanies the Senate debate. Plus, they argued, the August 2011 debt limit deal served as an effective budget and had the force of law.
Before the debt deal was sealed in 2011, Schumer led the opposition to crafting a budget and quietly lobbied disgruntled rank-and-file members to oppose then-Chairman Kent Conrad’s push to do one.
But with Murray having helped Democrats gain two seats in November and fiscal issues dominating the talking points of both parties, sources say there are few tricky issues that could come up in a budget debate that wouldn’t come up otherwise. After all, the New Year’s fiscal cliff vote that effectively raised tax rates on higher earners is out of the way, and Democrats and Republicans recognize that Congress might have to tackle entitlement cuts in the sequester and debt limit debates, regardless of whether the Senate passes a budget.
In addition to Democrats’ willingness to take the political risks that a budget represents, sources said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., trusts Murray to keep the party’s best political interests in mind. He did not feel the same way about Conrad, a chart-loving budget wonk who seemed uninterested in the political implications of budget policy.
“Kent Conrad sucked at managing bills,” said the senior Democratic aide — unaffiliated with Murray’s office — who noted that the North Dakota Democrat was “bad at political calculations” and “a true budget policy wonk.”
“Murray is not that person,” the aide said.
As proof of his confidence, Reid publicly elevated Murray’s stature Tuesday when he referred reporters’ questions about budget matters to the new chairman.
And at a news conference Wednesday, Murray displayed a renewed assertiveness in fielding reporters’ questions, even those directed at Reid. It was as if the weight of her new gavel — and her newfound credibility as former head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the 2011 Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction — had redefined the unassuming “mom in tennis shoes.”
“May I answer that?” Murray interrupted Reid as he began to address the first question thrown out by a reporter.
“As I said, I intend to move forward a budget resolution through the Senate to deal with the sequestration replacement and to set appropriations levels,” Murray said. “The House Republicans can’t have it both ways. If they want us [to] — and we want to — move a budget through regular process, then they can’t have brinkmanship that they manufacture for the next six months.”