By Alexander Bolton - 10/03/12 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) has become a power player in the Senate Democratic leadership because of how she has handled two “assignments from hell.”
One was serving as co-chairwoman of the supercommittee tasked in 2011 with finding $1.2 trillion in budget savings after congressional leaders and President Obama failed to reach a deal.
“Patty has the trust of the whole leadership and she has the trust of the caucus and she’s done a very good job on two very tough issues,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, told The Hill in an interview.
At the beginning of the election cycle, political handicappers issued dire warnings that Democrats were likely to lose the Senate. Now Schumer thinks the odds are that
Democrats will not have a diminished majority after the election.
“If I had to pick an over-under right now, I’d pick 53,” Schumer said, referring to the number of Democrats currently in the Senate.
Murray has won raves from colleagues for recruiting strong candidates across the country. She scored coups by persuading Elizabeth Warren and Heidi Heitkamp to run in Massachusetts and North Dakota, respectively, and endorsed Rep. Shelley Berkley in the Democratic primary in Nevada.
Murray says personal ambition was the furthest thing from her mind in leading the DSCC.
“This isn’t about me personally. This is truly about this country, where we’re headed and the policies we’ll put in place,” she said on a conference call Tuesday.
But her colleagues say she is too modest.
“Patty stepped up when others wouldn’t,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said. “It was at a very difficult moment.
“It started with the recruitment of the best candidates in the country,” Boxer added. “She engaged all of us to contact these candidates and urge them to run. She did an amazing job, because you can’t beat someone with no one.”
Schumer predicted that Murray would play a central role in talks to craft a grand deficit-reduction bargain after the election because of the authority she gained from the 2011 talks.
“She’s going to be very important on the fiscal cliff and how we deal with it,” he said.
Murray is in line to succeed Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, which would make her the caucus authority on budget issues. She will decide after the election whether to leave her chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs panel, according to aides.
And because of her service on the supercommittee, Murray has become an expert on pay-fors, the revenue-raising provisions that have become crucial for passing legislation to deal with the deficit.
Murray holds the fourth-ranking leadership spot as secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference, a post previously held by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Some aides and lobbyists have dismissed the job as a spot for a “token female,” but Murray has used it effectively.
In July, Murray showed that she had arrived as a leader in her own right by declaring at the Brookings Institution that Democrats would allow all of the Bush-era tax rates to expire unless Republicans compromised on raising taxes for the wealthy.
Murray was widely assumed to be speaking at the direction of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), but Democratic aides said she did it on her own.
“She felt it was important in that moment to lay out some of the lessons she learned over the prior year negotiating with Democrats and Republicans alike. She said what she believes and certainly didn’t need the administration or the leaders to tell her what to say,” an aide said.
“Sen. Reid supports her but didn’t ask her to do it or request it in any way,” said another senior aide.
She had the authority to make that statement on behalf of her party because of the credibility she earned as one of three Democratic senators on the supercommittee.
“The fact is both the supercommittee job and the DSCC job were assignments from hell,” said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Reid. “They’re both thankless jobs because they both brought some reward but a lot of downside as well.”
Unlike the DSCC job, some of Murray’s colleagues coveted the chance to be at the center of the deficit-reduction debate — the defining issue of the 112th Congress. Some Democrats thought Conrad was the natural choice.
But Democratic sources say Reid wanted someone he could trust without question, someone to make sure that the other two members of the panel, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), did not stray too far in talks with Republicans.
“She’s somebody whom Reid considers a confidante and someone he knew he would have a direct line to throughout the process,” a senior Democratic aide said.
Murray was a strong choice because of her service on the Budget and Appropriations committees, and Reid trusted her to reject proposals on reducing Social Security and Medicare spending that would lead liberals to revolt.
“Her stock has certainly risen in the caucus,” said former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “Patty is creating a very substantial record and the caucus respects that.”
One Democratic aide said Murray earned high marks for how she handled the supercommittee by letting the negotiations play out with enough transparency “so that when it didn’t succeed in the end, it was clear whose fault it was.”
Murray spent hours meeting with the Republican co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), and developed a rapport with him, according to another aide. But when those talks deadlocked, she was nimble enough to encourage other members of the supercommittee to venture out on their own.
“That’s what a leader does. You send people on missions, you keep them on task,” the aide said.