Can Low-Key Sen. Murray Guide Supercommittee?

Aug 18, 2011

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

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

Murray examined a fuel tank for a torpedo which made for a Navy contract. Her guide, Jeff Tomson, says government orders make up about 30 percent of the company's business ‑‑ and 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 defense and non-defense spending.

"The easy thing to do," Murray says, "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 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 AP 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 says she's already been in touch with all the members of the supercommittee.

"I'm impressed that everybody understands the really the important consequences of this, although many have draw 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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.