Washington Sen. Patty Murray must step up, help end government shutdown

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) talks about the government shutdown.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) talks about the government shutdown.
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Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) talks about the government shutdown.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray likes to cast herself as an agent of compromise. For proof, the veteran Democrat often points to her 2013 alliance with Paul Ryan, the former Republican House speaker, to avert a government shutdown.

Today Ryan is gone, an estimated 800,000 federal workers are about to miss their second paycheck and the forces behind the longest-running partial government shutdown on record seem intractable.

But Murray, whose stature has only grown since 2013, is well positioned to employ the negotiating power she’s amassed as the third-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate.

In a short meeting with our Editorial Board Wednesday before catching a flight back to Washington D.C., Murray said her role is “trying to think creatively for ways out of this (shutdown.)” Her constituents are counting on her to be creative, responsive and bold, even if it means stepping on some toes in her own party.

The eyes of a restless nation will shift to the U.S. Senate Thursday as Murray and her colleagues consider a pair of competing proposals to end the shutdown, now in its fifth week.

The patience of a cynical nation will be tested, however, as both bills are likely dead on arrival.

The Republican plan includes President Trump’s demand for a $5.7 billion border wall – a non-starter for Democrats, despite Trump throwing in temporary protections for about 1 million undocumented immigrants. The Democratic counteroffer, which would buy time for negotiations by reopening closed agencies through Feb. 8, is unlikely to win the necessary backing of at least 13 Republicans.

But at least a window of opportunity has been unshuttered. Now it’s critical for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to work with minority Democrats, including Murray, to allow light and fresh air into the backroom bargaining sessions.

Too much is at stake for this gridlock to continue. Each week that passes without a fully functioning federal workforce causes a 0.1-percent hit to the U.S. gross domestic product, according to prominent national economist Jon D. Haveman; he gave the keynote speech Wednesday at the annual Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber Horizons Economic Forecast breakfast.

Individual hardship stories are prolific around our state, from unpaid air-traffic controllers and TSA agents to Coast Guard personnel and National Park rangers. Murray said she’s heard from these folks and many others feeling the shutdown impact.

Murray denounced Trump for issuing his $5.7 billion border wall ultimatum too late in the budget-writing process, after Congress had reached bipartisan agreement in December on spending bills to keep the government operating in 2019.

She told us that condoning such brinkmanship would set “a terribly bad precedent” for future Congresses that must strike budget deals with future chief executives. It would be bad even if that president were a Democrat, she added.

She’ll get no argument from us. But Democrats would do well to heed the advice of their caucus mate, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. He gave this tip to Trump in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week: “Always try to find a solution in which both sides come out ahead.”

The president got closer to doing that by putting relief on the table for 700,000 young immigrants currently in limbo under the DACA program, plus 300,000 others facing the loss of their temporary protected status. It’s a flawed offer, laced with poison pills and a shortsighted three-year expiration. But it could be a vehicle for compromise.

It should be noted that the agreement Murray made with Ryan five years ago was imperfect, too, and merely delayed difficult decisions. The terms of their deal expired at the end of 2015, which raised the specter of deep, automatic cuts to domestic programs and an accelerated drawdown of the military — a budget process known as sequestration.

Likewise, tradeoffs will be needed to put federal employees back to work and extract our government from a political quagmire. We’re counting on the statecraft of Sen. Murray to help.