As the slow, steady, self-proclaimed “mom in tennis shoes,” Patty Murray doesn’t usually cause much of a stir on Capitol Hill. But on Wednesday, the Washington senator found herself under attack from conservatives and good-government groups outraged that she had been named to co-chair the powerful, budget-slashing “supercommittee.”
The reason: while Murray will be one of 12 lawmakers charged with crafting $1.5 trillion in budget cuts, she also sits atop the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which will be raising money aggressively for her party.
“We thought the choice of Senator Murray said ‘business as usual,’” Mary Boyle, the spokeswoman for Common Cause, tells The Daily Beast. “It is a message to special interests to back your truck up to Senator Murray’s office and dump your money here.”
To Boyle’s point, the supercommittee is being called a “lobbyists’ bonanza” in Washington, a one-stop shop for special interests to channel campaign donations in an effort to save their clients’ bacon as the members debate which programs, tax cuts, loopholes, and special favors will get the ax to shrink the federal debt.
Among those interests will be Murray’s hometown companies of Boeing and Microsoft. Boeing in particular stands to take a major blow should the supercommittee deadlock, which would automatically trigger hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to defense spending.
The GOP wasted little time in ripping Murray, one of three Democrats named to the panel by Majority Leader Harry Reid. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus demanded that Reid withdraw the appointment, saying the powerful panel is “no place for someone whose top priority is fundraising and politics.”
It’s a reasonable argument, underscored by the fact that Common Cause and a coalition of more than 20 watchdog groups, usually Murray’s allies, have turned on her. They urged the senator to pick one huge job at a time—either lead the committee in cutting the federal budget by Christmas or raise money for Senate Democrats in what looks to be a brutal election season for the party.
As chairwoman of the DSCC, Murray spends much of her time hosting fundraisers for lobbyists, ringing up major donors (especially lobbyists) for campaign cash, and both organizing and cajoling her fellow Senate Democrats to do the same. But Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the DSCC, said Wednesday that Murray will keep doing those jobs while she helps run the supercommittee created by the eleventh-hour debt deal between the White House and the Republicans.
Murray defended herself at a press conference, saying that multitasking is something every mom knows how to do. She said she hoped the chattering class in Washington would “try not to pigeonhole each and every one of us, or throw rocks, and to allow us the ability to look each other in the eyes and find common values that we have to move forward,” which hardly seems likely.
It’s an incredible turnaround for Murray, who campaigned in her first Senate run in 1992 as the consummate outsider, just a single mom doing her best, and now finds herself batting down accusations that she is too much of a Washington insider.
Her predicament, indeed, comes from her insider status. Were Murray not such a Reid loyalist, she likely would not have taken a second tour of duty heading the DSCC going into 2012, a year that threatens her party’s control of the Senate. “Literally nobody wanted the job,” one Democrat said. “She took one for the team.”
Murray also might not have ended up as a leader of the supercommittee had she not been a dutiful deputy to Reid. Democratic staffers say Reid has handed the reins to a reliable liberal and trusted ally, “someone he doesn’t have to worry about.”
At the same time, Murray is not only steeped in budget issues, she is, so far at least, the only woman sitting on the special committee, which will undoubtedly make decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of American women.
And even Murray’s critics say their anger isn’t really about her.
“This is not a criticism of Senator Murray at all,” Common Cause’s Boyle said. “This is about the reality of our system.”
The panel has to do in 12 weeks what Congress has failed to do for the last 15 years—pick winners and losers among American companies and taxpayers and finally say no to at least some of the interests that have bankrolled their campaigns for decades. It’s hard to see how it can be done, but this week we learned who will be giving it a try.
Most of the newly tapped members are seasoned legislators, powerhouses whose careers in Washington predate the paralysis that nearly led the country to default 10 days ago. While all are party loyalists, the Democratic senators in particular have a history of striking deals and working across the aisle to do it. (Nancy Pelosi has not yet named her three picks.)
In addition to Murray, Reid chose Max Baucus and John Kerry for the panel. Baucus is a pro-business moderate who pushed for a more centrist version of health-care reform in 2009, over the White House’s objections. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry will keep an eye on foreign policy and military interests for Democrats and the White House. He could be a surprise fence jumper if Republicans are looking for someone to work with. Although Kerry is an avowed liberal, the former presidential nominee is known still to be looking for his moment of history in the national spotlight after his failed White House run.
On the Republican side, Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also tapped a group of allies whom rank-and-file party members will trust to make a deal.
McConnell tapped his deputy, Jon Kyl, along with OMB director-turned-Ohio senator Rob Portman, which came as no surprise. Portman’s budget expertise, along with Kyl’s leadership post, made them easy selections. But McConnell also chose Pat Toomey, another freshman who once led the conservative Club for Growth. Toomey was elected with major Tea Party support and voted against the final debt compromise, which created the supercommittee, because he said the bill did not go far enough to cut spending.
Boehner chose a trio of aggressive budget hawks, a more senior slate than McConnell's, but with equally strong conservative leanings. Dave Camp chairs the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law for the House, while Fred Upton chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee. Notably absent from Boehner’s picks is any representative of the Tea Party–aligned freshman class that gave him so many headaches as he struggled to get a final debt-ceiling deal across the finish line. But as an ideological conservative, the five-term Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Boehner’s pick to co-chair the committee, is expected to make sure the freshmen voices are at the table.
While Kyl, Camp, and Upton have shown a willingness to work with Democrats in the past, all six Republicans have signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, a crucial detail that renders the prospect of a compromise on tax increases or “revenue raisers” almost impossible. Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, heartily approved of the GOP picks Wednesday and tweeted to his followers, “Your wallet is safe.”
But the pressure will be enormous. Whether America is safe from a deadlocked Congress, another credit downgrade, or a future default is in the hands of a multitasking mom in tennis shoes and 11 other lawmakers who must somehow find a way to be loyal both to their parties and to their financially ailing country.