In a town known more for long-winded discourses on intricate policy minutiae or partisan bomb-throwing than average work-a-day talk, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has earned a reputation as a bastion of common sense in the Senate.
When she first arrived in the Senate in 1992, “I felt like there wasn’t anyone here who would say what I would. … I often felt like what was happening in Washington, D.C., wasn’t getting translated” to the average American in a way they could understand, Murray said. She points out that during one of her earliest debates on the Senate floor, she wove stories about her family into her speeches. At one point, a colleague pulled her aside and told Murray “that we don’t use personal stories in the United States Senate. And I told him ‘That’s why I came here,’” Murray said. “It was such a shock to me. If you don’t use personal stories, how do you explain it to anybody?”
The three-term lawmaker has quietly transformed herself from the chamber’s lonely everyman willing to use personal stories in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” into a key member of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) leadership team and a tough-nosed legislator who leaders and “old bulls” alike have come to lean on.
“She’s done a great, great job,” Senate Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said, acknowledging that Murray’s down-to-earth approach to issues often helps steer the Democratic leadership. “She’s smart, she’s practical … [and] her quiet voice really carries the day sometimes,” Schumer said.
Reid offered similar praise.
“Sen. Murray has a unique and invaluable ability to communicate in a way that really connects with American families,” Reid said. “She is a trusted adviser, a consistent advocate for her state and a Senator who is widely respected by Members on both sides of the aisle.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called Murray a “very effective member of our Caucus and of the Senate” and a member of the leadership who “brings [to the table] her life experiences that really shaped her and made her a strong advocate for people who need a voice here.”
Boxer added that whether it’s health care, education or issues affecting children, Murray has a unique ability translate the needs of others to Democratic policymaking. “She never forgets that.
“Patty brings common sense and reality to every meeting we have here,” Boxer said.
Although her first foray into leadership came in 2002 as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, her new role this year as Democratic Caucus secretary has pushed her into the party’s top tier of leaders.
Murray, along with Schumer and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) make up Reid’s inner circle of advisers, where her plain-spoken approach to politics has had a significant impact, Schumer and others said.
Each member of Reid’s leadership team plays a distinct role. Reid is a master of Senate procedure and finding ways to outflank Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Durbin is regarded as the group’s most traditional “liberal” and constantly looks to ensure Senate Democrats are hewing closely to their party’s labor and environmentalist roots in leadership meetings.
Schumer, as chairman of the DSCC, is the group’s fire breather and constantly pushes for the best angle to attack Republicans or gain a partisan advantage, aides said.
“Sometimes it’s like they’re a bunch of kids yelling,” one leadership aide said, explaining that Murray’s job is to bring the group into agreement on an easy-to-understand position. During leadership meetings on legislative or political strategy, “she says, ‘OK, fine, but how are we going to say that to the American people?’” the aide explained.
Murray acknowledges that she often plays traffic cop in leadership meetings and says her insistence on avoiding overly technical language “helps everybody coalesce” around a message “that translates to everyday Americans.”
Murray credits her reputation to the fact that despite her hectic schedule in Washington, D.C., she travels home to Washington state on weekends and continues to live a normal life with her family. Unlike many of her colleagues who over the years find themselves isolated from average people, “I was at Home Depot [over the weekend], I was at the grocery store and I listened” to constituents, Murray said. “I can’t go to Home Depot and say ‘SCHIP’ and have anyone understand me.”
That role also has often come through in public. For instance, during one of the Democratic leadership group’s regular “pen-and-pad” sessions with reporters, Schumer, Reid and Durbin took turns railing on Republican “obstructionism” and their inability to pass legislation over GOP roadblocks. A clearly exasperated Murray interrupted her colleagues, saying “this is not about process” and went on to discuss the substance of their proposals.
Schumer and other colleagues also pointed to Murray’s increasing work on the floor, where she has become one of Reid’s most trusted lieutenants. “She’s really helped Harry out on the floor,” he said.
One key area of legislative work for Murray has been the Iraq War debate, where she has helped Reid manage the floor in terms of setting speaking schedules and worked to develop the Caucus’ message. Murray, who interned in a Veterans Affairs hospital and whose father was a veteran, also has taken the lead on the party’s push to boost veterans’ spending and has been instrumental in making it a key component of her party’s broader attack on the Iraq War.
Additionally, Murray has become a central figure in Democrats’ appropriations work this session. So far this year, Murray has managed a number of high-profile spending bills for the majority, including the continuing resolution, the contentious supplemental war spending bill and this week’s homeland security measure. She also logged long hours assisting Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on this year’s budget.
Part of her increased responsibilities have come from her close relationship with Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Murray, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, has become close to Byrd over the past several years, and as a result the old bull has relied increasingly on Murray to oversee floor operations during consideration of appropriations bills, Democrats said.
Part of her success as a legislator can be traced to Murray’s ability to maintain good relationships with most of the chamber’s Democrats and many Republicans, allowing her to avoid being lumped into any ideological cliques.
“Sen. Murray has consistently demonstrated her ability to lead in the United States Senate,” Byrd said, adding, “I have the greatest respect for Sen. Murray’s work on the Appropriations Committee, in the Democratic leadership and as a U.S. Senator.”
Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.