WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray has to think big while also thinking local, and that means curbing federal spending while keeping federal dollars flowing back home.
It means keeping Joint Base Lewis-McChord or the Energy Department’s Hanford Richland Operations Office humming back in Washington, but also crafting a federal budget plan that satisfies enough of Washington, D.C.,’s budget conservatives that it can pass Congress. It also means building enough goodwill back home so she doesn’t face the kind of close election she did in 2010.
As the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate’s fourth-ranking Democrat, Murray was one of two chief negotiators of the deal on the federal budget announced Tuesday night. She and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., talked for weeks. They unveiled a proposal that would avoid the most harsh of the automatic spending cuts, or sequester, that are due to take effect Jan. 15. If no budget is passed by that date, the government could endure another partial shutdown.
It was arguably the biggest triumph of Murray’s 20-year Senate career, where she was half the architect of a deal that’s eluded negotiators for years.
In an interview shortly after the announcement, Murray was beaming. When asked a simple, “How are you?” she couldn’t stop laughing.
She quickly turned to Washington, saying that by easing the sequester’s effects, the agreement would provide relief for her state. Asked how, specifically, that would happen, Murray was vague; those kinds of details have yet to be addressed.
Her mood was so buoyant she didn’t seem to mind the critics, generally conservatives, who disliked the deal.
If they have a problem, she said with a chuckle, “They can ask Paul Ryan,” a hero to the conservatives.
This week Murray, like Ryan, stepped away from her role as partisan messenger and got leader-like.
“This agreement breaks through the recent dysfunction to prevent another government shutdown and roll back sequestration’s cuts to defense and domestic investments in a balanced way,” a confident Murray said.
She got statesmanlike. “It’s a good step in the right direction,” she said, “that can hopefully rebuild some trust and serve as a foundation for continued bipartisan work.”
Murray says her mission is to promote responsible federal spending, not simply meat-ax budget reductions. Budgeting, she maintains, is a nuanced process, where not every federal dollar has to be treated the same.
Murray’s role in the deal was no surprise to analysts. “She’s been a steady force, a calm voice,” said Peter May, the chairman of the University of Washington political science department. “She’s not a show horse. She’s not a bomb thrower. She’s a consensus builder.”
That style usually means a solid future in the Democratic Senate hierarchy. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, now in his seventh year at the helm, is 74, though his term runs until January 2017. Next in line is Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, who’s 69, and policy committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York, who at 63 is the same age as Murray.
Typically, leaders move up the ladder one step at a time, but not always. Sometimes senators decide they want someone who’s a better spokesman or a better inside player, and they’ll allow a colleague to leapfrog the next in line.
So far, there’s little talk of Murray succeeding Reid, but the party might warm to the idea of her as the first woman to hold the top Senate job.
Murray’s workmanlike style often denies her the kind of credit for working on state issues that she probably should get, May said. She won re-election last year with 52.4 percent of the vote and she won in 2004 with 55 percent, not overwhelming numbers for an incumbent.
In the McClatchy interview, she spoke passionately about the state.
“At home every weekend I hear about this suffering because of the sequester taking place. I hear civilian and military employees in Tacoma talk about how much furloughs hurt them,” she said. “In Tri-Cities they’re very, very dependent on the federal government to clean up Hanford.”
Asked how the deal would affect those constituents, she said only, “Instead of having across-the-board cuts that were not well thought-out, they’ll be replaced” with more sensible budgeting. “We don’t just go straight across the board.”
In the Defense Department, some 9,500 civilian workers at Lewis-McChord had six unpaid days off last summer because of the first round of sequestration, and related forced federal budget cuts slashed the base’s operating budget from $432 million in 2011 to $344 million in 2013. The uncertainty regarding defense spending has led the base to hold off on maintenance spending and to reduce training for troops that aren’t bound for Afghanistan. It’s also caused trepidation among private companies outside the base that do business with the military.Adam Ashton of The News Tribune and Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick contributed to this story.