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 state, but also crafting a federal budget plan that satisfies enough of Capitol Hill’s budget conservatives that it can pass Congress. It also means building enough good will 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. She and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., talked for weeks. Tuesday, 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 state, saying that by easing the sequester’s impact, 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.
Ryan’s backing was crucial. He was the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential candidate, an unapologetic conservative who wrote budgets that went out on political limbs. The House of Representatives approved his spending blueprint earlier this year, one that would have meant politically risky changes to Medicare and Social Security.
Without Ryan, chances are a lot of conservative support might be lost. Then again, without Murray, a hero to liberals — she got a perfect rating last year from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action — that wing of the Democratic Party might have been wary. Americans for Democratic Action named eight senators — seven Democrats and one independent — “heroes” last year. Murray was one.
This week Murray, like Ryan, stepped away from her role as partisan messenger and got leaderlike.
“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 may 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.”
At Hanford, the reduction last March was estimated at up to 10 percent of spending, meaning employees would have to be furloughed. However, furloughs were more limited than predicted, in part because the Department of Energy was able to shift dollars within its budget.
Other budget action locked in spending at the level of previous years for some Hanford nuclear reservation projects that didn’t need the money, and starved others that did.
Changes within departmental budgets — called reprogramming — that was approved by Congress allowed some switching around of funds. But there still were some furloughs required by Department of Energy contractors, and substantial work for small businesses with subcontracts was canceled or reduced.
Because of the current budget uncertainties, Hanford contractors have been approved to lay off up to 450 employees in the current fiscal year. Most of those layoffs are expected to be this month and in January. No reprogramming has been proposed this year.
There also is the issue of whether the Department of Energy can meet its legal obligations for environmental cleanup. It already has said it can’t meet the remaining deadlines in a court-enforced consent decree, and budget issues aren’t helping it get back on track.
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.