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.Continue Reading
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.