Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell weigh move to new committees
The drubbing that U.S. Senate Democrats took in Tuesday’s election will cost Sen. Patty Murray her chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, a high-profile perch she used to help shape the nation's fiscal priorities.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — The drubbing that U.S. Senate Democrats took in Tuesday’s election will cost Sen. Patty Murray her chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, a high-profile perch she used to forge a two-year reprieve from automatic federal spending cuts and to help shape the nation's fiscal priorities.
The Republican gains also will cut short Sen. Maria Cantwell’s stint as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship and of an aviation subcommittee through which she has pushed to make Washington state a magnet for biofuels research and composite-materials manufacturing.
The Senate Democrats’ loss of majority power after eight years will sting few states more than Washington. In the 114th Congress beginning in January, for instance, only Vermont and California will have senators who are both Democrats and whose combined seniority exceeds Murray’s and Cantwell’s 36 years.
What’s more, with Republican majorities in the Senate and the House, some of the agenda-setting control over issues ranging from immigration to budget negotiations is expected to shift from congressional Democrats to President Obama.
On Wednesday, Murray was mulling whether to give up what would be her ranking-Democrat position on the budget committee in January for the same slot on the Committee on Health Education Labor & Pensions (HELP).
The HELP committee’s jurisdiction overlaps with some of Murray’s deepest interests, including early childhood education, job training, mental health and insurance.
Eli Zupnick, Murray’s spokesman, said Murray is “going to take some time to talk to her colleagues and constituents about how she can best fight for Washington state families.”
Zupnick said Murray will make a decision in the coming weeks.
The HELP committee is now chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is retiring from Congress. Another Democratic committee member, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, is ahead of Murray in seniority and would have first dibs on the ranking position. But Mikulski now chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and is expected to stay put as the top Democrat there.
Senators are allowed to serve as chair or ranking member on one committee.
Murray is a senior member of the appropriations committee and chairs its subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development. Those seats — and Murray’s role as the No. 4 Senate Democratic leader — have given her say in directing federal dollars to specific agencies and programs.
She is expected to remain a senior member of the appropriations committee and retain her leadership post in the minority party. Murray in the past has helped steer federal money to benefit local projects, including cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site and Puget Sound, improvements to the state’s ferry system, Sound Transit expansion and orders for Boeing military aircraft.
Murray was unavailable for an interview Wednesday. In an emailed statement, she said she would keep working with Republicans to create jobs and to invest in local priorities.
“Washington state families are expecting their government to work for them and invest in their priorities no matter which party controls Congress, and I am never going to stop fighting to make sure they have a voice at the table and their values are represented as decisions are being made,” she said.
Murray risks finding herself sidelined from those discussions if she remains as the top Democrat on the budget committee. Stan Collender, a federal budget expert who has worked in the Senate and the House, said he expects negotiations over spending and any deficit reduction to be hashed out among Obama, presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.
“Congressional Democrats will have little leverage,” said Collender, executive vice president of Qorvis MSL Group, a communications and consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
“If they don’t like the spending levels their only hope is that Obama vetoes the bills and they then have a chance to vote against an override.”
In 2013, Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., her counterpart on the House Budget Committee, helped craft a two-year suspension from congressionally mandated budget cuts called sequestration.
But automatic spending caps are set to resume in October, and Republicans and Democrats would need to agree on a budget blueprint to avoid another fiscal showdown.
Cantwell, who gave up chairmanship of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee this year in favor of the small-business committee, also is weighing her committee choices in the next Congress.
Cantwell, who’s serving her third term, may move up three or four slots to 11th or 12th most-senior Senate Democrat, depending on whether Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana wins a runoff election next month.
Another member of Washington’s congressional delegation in the House, Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco, also will relinquish control of a committee next year when he retires.
As chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Hastings has been an aggressive critic of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and the Obama administration.
Hastings, among other things, has pushed for more timber harvests and energy-resource extraction from federal lands, and against expansion of wilderness areas, national monuments and species listings under the Endangered Species Act.