Can Low-Key Sen. Murray Guide Supercommittee?

Aug 18, 2011
Originally published on August 18, 2011 8:30 am

Get ready to hear the word "supercommittee" a lot this fall. It's the bipartisan committee created by the recent debt ceiling deal, and it has until Thanksgiving to figure out how to cut more than $1 trillion from the deficit.

One of the panel's leaders is Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state. With Congress in recess, Murray is back home, doing the obligatory factory tours. She was at Machinists Inc. on Seattle's industrial south side Wednesday.

Murray examined a fuel tank for a torpedo being made for a Navy contract. Her guide, Jeff Tomson, said that government orders make up about 30 percent of the company's business ‑‑ and that he knows projects like this one could easily end up on the supercommittee's chopping block.

"I would prefer that they didn't do that now," Tomson said. "We would have done well for the customer on this project, and we'd like to continue to."

But if the supercommittee can't reach agreement, there will be automatic cuts, split evenly among defense and nondefense spending.

"The easy thing to do," Murray said, "would be, 'Why don't you just cut everything?' But that is not the wise thing to do. We have to be very careful because if we just simply put more people out of work, whether they're in construction or transportation, and we make it harder for us to get out of this economic recovery, then we'll not have been wise."

This deficit-cutting job is something of a role-reversal for Murray. Last year, in the middle of the Tea Party insurgency, she won a fourth term by playing up the billions in federal dollars she's brought home.

In 2005, she even helped Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens get funding for the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere." Later, when he left the Senate, he gave her his desk.

Republicans say Murray simply doesn't belong on the supercommittee.

"It's proof that the Senate Democrats aren't serious," says Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman. He says there's also a big conflict of interest in the fact that Murray runs the Senate Democrats' fundraising effort.

"You don't need to be chairman of the Republican National Committee or any political operative to figure out that Sen. Murray is going to use this position to raise money for Senate Democrats," Priebus says.

Murray says she won't step down from her fundraising job, but she says the supercommittee will be her top priority.

Meanwhile, some Democrats worry that the diminutive, mild-mannered former teacher won't be tough enough for these high-stakes negotiations.

"A lot of people underestimated Patty Murray," says David Ammons, a former Associated Press reporter who covered Murray's political ascent in the '90s.

When she first ran for the U.S. Senate, she used her modest appearance as a political asset, calling herself the "Mom in Tennis Shoes." Now she's the fourth most powerful Democrat in the Senate.

"Really, few people thought when she went to Washington that she would eventually become the powerhouse that she is today," Ammons says.

Senate staffers say Murray often acts as a counterbalance to the Democratic leadership's more pugnacious personalities, like New York's Chuck Schumer. Some think Majority Leader Harry Reid put her on the supercommittee to exercise a similar calming effect.

Outside the factory in Seattle, Murray said she has already been in touch with all of the members of the supercommittee.

"I'm impressed that everybody understands the really important consequences of this, the importance that we — although many have drawn lines in the past — to come to the table with open mind. And I'm hoping that the pundits and the screaming folks that are out there will give us the room to come to a thoughtful agreement," Murray said.

But with the Democratic base so disenchanted with President Obama's failed attempts to find a middle ground with Republicans, it remains to be seen whether they'll find Murray's low-key approach any more satisfying.

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We've already been hearing the phrase supercommittee a lot. Get ready to hear it a lot more this fall. It's the bipartisan committee created by the recent deal on the debt ceiling. The panel has until Thanksgiving to figure out how to cut more than a trillion dollars from the deficit. We're taking a closer look at some of the supercommittee's key members, and this morning NPR's Martin Kaste has the profile of the Democratic co-chair, Senator Patty Murray of Washington State.

MARTIN KASTE: With Congress in recess, Senator Murray is back home, doing the obligatory factory tours. Yesterday she was at Machinists, Inc., on Seattle's industrial south side.

PATTY MURRAY: So what does this piece of equipment do?

JEFF TOMSON: So basically when we come in we have a...

KASTE: Right here, Murray is looking at a fuel tank for a torpedo - a Navy contract. Her guide, Jeff Tomson, says government orders make up about 30 percent of this company's business. And he knows projects like this one could easily end up on the supercommittee's chopping block.

TOMSON: I would prefer that they didn't do that now. We would definitely have done well for the customer on this project, and we'd like to continue to.

KASTE: But if the supercommittee can't reach agreement, there'll be automatic cuts, split evenly between defense and non-defense spending. Outside the machine shop, Murray says her goal is to make sure cuts are smart.

MURRAY: The easy thing to do would be, oh, why don't you just cut everything. But that is not the wise thing to do. We have to be very careful, because if we just simply put more people out of work, whether they are in construction or transportation, and we make it harder for us to get out of this economic recovery, we will not have been wise.

KASTE: This deficit-cutting job is something of a role-reversal for Murray. Last year, in the middle of the Tea Party insurgency, she won a fourth term by playing up the billions in federal dollars she's brought home. She even helped Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to get funding for the notorious Bridge to Nowhere back in 2005. Later, when he left the Senate, Stevens gave her his desk. Republicans say Murray simply doesn't belong on the supercommittee.

REINCE PRIEBUS: It's proof that the Senate Democrats aren't serious.

KASTE: Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus says there's also a big conflict of interest in the fact that Murray runs the Senate Democrats' fund-raising effort.

PRIEBUS: You don't need to be chairman of the Republican National Committee or any political operative to figure out that Senator Murray is going to use this position in order to raise money for Senate Democrats.

KASTE: Murray says she won't step down from her fund-raising job, but she says the supercommittee will be her top priority. Meanwhile, some Democrats worry that the diminutive, mild-mannered former teacher won't be tough enough for these high-stakes negotiations. David Ammons says that assumption about Murray is nothing new.

DAVID AMMONS: I think a lot of people underestimated Patty Murray.

KASTE: A former AP reporter, Ammons covered Murray's political ascent in the 1990s. When she first ran for U.S. Senate, she used her modest appearance as a political asset, calling herself the Mom in Tennis Shoes. Now she's the Senate's fourth most powerful Democrat.

AMMONS: Really, few people thought when she went to Washington that she would eventually become the powerhouse that she is today.

KASTE: Outside the factory in Seattle, Senator Murray says she's already been in touch with all the members of the supercommittee.

MURRAY: And I am impressed that everybody understands the really important consequences of this, the importance that we - although many of us have drawn lines in the past, to come to the table with open minds.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.