By Russell Berman - 09/07/11 12:50 AM EDT
For Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the job of leading a congressional search for $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next three months is tough enough.
But that task is further complicated by a little-known oddity: The two Capitol Hill veterans have never met each other. Not in the month since they were tapped to lead the vaunted “supercommittee,” nor in the preceding nine years that they jointly served in Congress, aides to both lawmakers say.
The relationship they forge will be key to the panel’s chances for success.
“It’s all in their hands, and it’s how they set the tone,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Isakson said it would be important for both Murray and Hensarling to set a tone for the committee of putting partisanship aside. “If either one or both don’t, it’s going to be very difficult for the committee,” he said.
A majority of the committee’s 12 members must support a final package, and while it is conceivable that neither the conservative Hensarling nor the liberal Murray will sign on to a deal, they are responsible for steering the panel toward agreement.
Failure to reach an accord would trigger across-the-board spending cuts unpopular to both parties, and it would feed the growing perception that the ideological chasm of modern politics has rendered Congress incapable of meeting the nation’s greatest challenges.
Aides say that while the co-chairmen have not met in person, they have spoken by phone frequently over the last month, working together to hire senior staff and schedule the panel’s initial meetings.
“Everything has been going as well as anyone could have hoped for,” a senior Democratic aide said on Tuesday. The aide described “a growing sense of trust” between Murray and Hensarling, despite the lack of a face-to-face meeting during the monthlong congressional recess. “It’s refreshing to see the very early seedlings of a true bipartisan process coming together,” the aide said.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that Hensarling and Murray “are having good conversations.” “Things are moving forward,” he said. “So far they’ve done all that I think you can expect of co-chairs.”
The selection of Murray and Hensarling by their respective party leaders met with praise from political allies and a healthy amount of skepticism from across Washington. Both leaders are stalwarts of their party bases. Murray is serving her second stint as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Hensarling is a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House. Neither has built a reputation as a legislative dealmaker.
“They’re both very bright people. They’re both very partisan people. We’ll see who wins,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who served in the Senate with Murray and alongside Hensarling on the presidential deficit-reduction commission (which Simpson co-chaired).
“They’re just the kind of people that hang tough,” Simpson said in an interview. “And they’re going to hang tough. And if they both hang tough-tough-tough, then it probably won’t get done.”
Hensarling and Murray were unavailable to be interviewed for this article, their offices said.
Hensarling, 54, is a commission veteran. First elected to Congress in 2002, he served on the congressional panel overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) as well as on the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission that met in 2010. He is now the vice chairman of the Financial Services Committee.
Hensarling joined two other House Republicans in voting against the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, preventing it from reaching the threshold of support necessary to trigger the expedited votes in Congress that Democratic leaders had promised.
Simpson said Hensarling’s opposition was due to the commission’s push to eliminate the tax exemption for employer-provided health insurance, and not a blanket opposition to tax increases that many Democrats view as essential to any far-reaching deficit-reduction agreement.
“At least he wasn’t scared by Grover Norquist, which made me feel very good,” Simpson said, referring to the influential anti-tax activist who has secured a written pledge from most Republican lawmakers, including Hensarling, to oppose any net tax hike.
Murray, 60, has served in the Senate since 1993. As secretary of the Democratic Conference, she is the fourth-ranking Democrat, and the only woman on the leadership team and on the supercommittee. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hailed her ability to work “across party lines,” Republicans immediately criticized her selection on the grounds that her responsibility to protect the Democratic majority would prevent her from acting in a bipartisan way on the panel.
Isakson, who has teamed up with Murray on asbestos and mine-safety legislation, said her political role was “a legitimate concern” but that she had experience “finding common ground.”
“She certainly has the capability of working equitably with everyone on the committee,” Isakson said. “She’s all business. She’s tough. I have found her to be intellectually honest.”
For Murray and Hensarling, the first step in the arduous path to a bipartisan agreement could be a simple handshake. That the two Beltway insiders have never met underscores a partisan culture often decried by veteran lawmakers, who say the lack of after-hours socializing between Republicans and Democrats has led, in part, to the entrenched acrimony between the parties.
It did not, however, come as a surprise to Simpson, who left the Senate nearly 15 years ago. “I was in the Senate for 18 years. There are many people who were in the other body that I never met,” he said. “This would be a good opportunity [for Murray and Hensarling]. Once they get to know each other, I bet they’ll make some progress.”
—Mike Lillis and Erik Wasson contributed.