By: Manu Raju
December 13, 2013 05:03 AM EST
President Barack Obama was on the phone repeatedly with Sen. Patty Murray during the high-stakes budget talks and asked how he could help.
Murray’s response: I got this.
The veteran Washington Democrat, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, had quietly and methodically built a close relationship with a man long vilified by the White House and congressional Democrats: Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and Mitt Romney’s running mate. But after private negotiations with each other, starting in the Senate dining room exactly a year ago and culminating after Murray’s tense talks with furious House Democrats, the two were able to do what seemed impossible in a gridlocked Congress: Reach a bipartisan budget accord.
For Murray, the task was particularly tricky — and a test of whether she could use her growing clout to cut a deal after failing to reach one on the deficit-cutting supercommittee just two years ago. She needed broad support from her party for the plan she was drafting with Ryan, a Republican whose previous budgets worked as a campaign foil for Democrats. But she and Ryan agreed to keep their talks confidential, meaning she could not solicit feedback from fellow Democrats even though their support was critical to push the plan through the House. All the while, Murray had to keep the White House, which was eager for a deal, at arm’s length.
“They knew I was negotiating, they didn’t know the details of what I was negotiating,” Murray said in an interview Wednesday in her Senate office. “I think we had to balance the role of a White House that needed to support a deal at the end of the day, but I also truly respect my counterpart’s need to get Republican votes, and how that kind of voice in that room might have made it more difficult for them.”
Speaking about her conversations with the president, Murray added this: “He was fully engaged in wanting us to get to a deal but understood his voice would be needed in different ways than perhaps sending his vice president over here to do a deal.”
On Thursday, the House passed the Ryan-Murray budget on a resounding 332-94 vote, reducing the chances of another government shutdown next year and restoring certainty to the dysfunctional appropriations process. Sixty votes will be needed to break an expected Senate GOP filibuster next week, meaning the vote could be close. If it passes the Senate, it would amount to a temporary cease-fire in the budget wars that have consumed Washington since voters elected a divided Congress in 2010.
The bill would set overall discretionary spending levels for 2014 at $1.012 trillion and $1.014 in the next fiscal year, a substantial increase from the $967 billion that would take effect in mid-January without the budget agreement. But both Ryan and Murray — fearful of the effects of the continued sequestration cuts — agreed to shift those cuts to other parts of the budget, including extending a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers in the next decade. The package assumes a net deficit savings of $23 billion over the next decade.
Despite its easy approval in the House, the measure has come under fire from the right — for assuming the cuts would take place in the future rather than right away — and from the left, for leaving out an extension of unemployment benefits and for forcing federal workers to pay more into their pension programs.
It was the federal workers’ cuts that made House Democrats irate in the final round of negotiations. While Ryan and Murray had been methodically moving toward a deal, those talks were put on hold as she had to put out a fire with House Democratic leaders, including Maryland Democrats Chris Van Hollen and Steny Hoyer, who represent federal workers in their districts, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Murray made the case to House Democrats that Ryan was proposing about a $20 billion cut to federal worker retirement programs, and she was pushing him to lower that number. After a series of back-channel talks with House Democrats, Murray and Ryan agreed to impose about a $6 billion cut in federal pension programs, and only new workers would be affected. Members of the U.S. military who retire before age 62 will also see smaller cost-of-living increases as part of the compromise.
Obama called Van Hollen as Air Force One was on its way to South Africa to the Nelson Mandela memorial services and promised he wouldn’t seek additional retirement cuts to federal workers in next year’s budget. (Van Hollen and Pelosi both supported the deal, while Hoyer opposed it.)
“I did not support this agreement 24 hours ago,” Van Hollen said Wednesday, calling the negotiations “rough and tumble at times.”
“That would be an understatement,” Murray quipped when a reporter noted that House Democrats initially seemed unhappy about the deal.
Murray said she understood why Democrats would be skeptical of the deal, given that in the majority-rules House, the two parties rarely have to work with each other.
“So, looking at a deal that had billions of dollars in cuts to federal employees — that to them, is like, ‘Why did you give that away?’” she said. “Rather than understanding that we started out at $40 billion, and we got them down to $6 billion. When you’re doing that in the room, you say, ‘Look what I got!’ And all of a sudden, you got people who say, ‘What?”
Murray, a 63-year-old grandmother of two who joined the Senate in 1993, is hardly an imposing figure, standing 5 feet tall and often reserved when she’s in the spotlight. But the deal reached with Ryan comes at a critical juncture in her own career. The senator has become one of the most trusted confidantes to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who appointed her to lead the supercommittee two years ago, as well as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the party’s successful 2012 election cycle.
As No. 4 in the Senate Democratic Caucus, she’s viewed among insiders as the next likely Democratic whip, the second highest-ranking party position, once Reid steps down as leader — and potentially even the first female leader of the Senate. Murray brushes off the talk — (“I have a great leader right now, and I’m not the least bit interested in changing that,” she told POLITICO) — but nobody seems to be ruling her out.
“I don’t think there’s any limit to what she can achieve,” said the current Democratic whip, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, when asked if he thought she could be the next whip.
But the fiscal talks also showed that Murray could navigate the budget world with a tough GOP negotiator. Fresh off the campaign trail last year, Ryan and Murray sat down for breakfast in the Senate dining room last December, talking about their upbringings, their churches (both are Roman Catholic), two families and two states. They found more in common than they thought, Murray said.
“I had no idea what to know about this guy,” Murray said. “He ran for vice president, he was a political figure, he walked in, and we had a really good conversation about it, about his family, my family — about who we are. Honestly, his state was kind of compatible with mine — unless you talk about football.”
Ryan praised Murray on Thursday evening, calling her a “delight” and saying the talks were “very tough, very honest … but we kept our emotions in check and we kept working at it.”
Murray and Ryan both advanced budget proposals in their separate chambers earlier this year that couldn’t be more different in terms of their size and scope, with Ryan seeking a dramatic overhaul of Medicare, no net tax increases and to balance the budget in the next decade. Murray’s plan called for about $975 billion in new tax revenue, projecting about $1.85 trillion in additional deficit savings over the next decade, compared with the $4.63 trillion in savings under the Ryan plan.
But after the Senate in March passed its first budget in four years, and with Senate Republicans blocking bicameral negotiations, Murray and Ryan began to hold periodic informal discussions. They understood the limits of what they could accomplish, but in the run-up to the October government shutdown the talks essentially broke off.
Around that time, Murray addressed House Democrats and was peppered with questions about the Senate Democrats’ budget strategy. It was there it became clear to her that House Democrats would not settle for a spending bill in the next year at $986 billion, with additional spending cuts coming.
When the government reopened in mid-October, the negotiations with Ryan resumed — but the two agreed not to provide details to outsiders for fear they would leak to the press. After years of failing to cut a big deal to reform entitlement programs and the Tax Code, both sides agreed that a smaller deal was the only possibility. Both relatively laid-back individuals, the lawmakers’ talks were mainly about business and rarely got heated — but there were some key air-clearing moments.
On Nov. 10, as Murray was sitting in her kitchen at her home on Whidbey Island, Wash., Ryan called her up as the two engaged in a long and vigorous debate over whether to close a single tax deduction for a corporation. Ryan stood firm against higher taxes of any kind, but let Murray make her case even though she eventually relented.
“Both of us had to take something that was really personally important to us and say that’s off the table,” Murray said, referring also to Ryan’s push for entitlement changes.
But the exchanges weren’t always serious. The Tuesday morning after the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, was injured against the Chicago Bears in early November, Murray called Ryan and asked in a serious tone: “Paul, is everything OK?”
“What do you mean?” Ryan said.
“I understand Aaron Rodgers got hurt,” she said.
Ryan shot back: “Well, thanks for bringing that up.”
John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman contributed to this report.