How the Very Liberal Patty Murray and the Very Conservative Paul Ryan Made a DealJay Newston-Small, Elle · Link to Article
Within weeks of being named Budget Committee chair in November 2012, Senator Patty Murray asked her House counterpart, Paul Ryan, to meet for breakfast in the Senate Dining Room. It was a bit like an awkward first date. Ryan, a conservative, was fresh off his run as Mitt Romney's vice president (and nearly three years later, after John Boehner's resignation as Speaker of the House, would be the only Republican of national stature the hard right was even considering for the job). Murray, the famous "mom in tennis shoes" elected by Washington State in 1992, is a liberal Democrat 20 years Ryan's senior. He's voted to repeal Obamacare roughly 60 times; she fought for the Affordable Care Act to include contraception coverage. He wants big cuts in food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; she introduced the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act to help families when school lunches aren't available. He strongly opposes gun control; she strongly supports it. You get the idea, but to sum it up in a sentence: He typically gets a zero rating from Americans for Democratic Action; she gets a zero from the American Conservative Union.
For Murray, the intention of the breakfast was simple—or perhaps simply strategic: She just wanted the two of them to get to know each other. How did they get started in politics? How did they meet their spouses? They talked about the way they'd been shaped by the sickness and loss of their fathers: At age 16, Ryan found his father dead in his bed, the victim of a sudden heart attack, while Murray's father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 15, forcing her family onto food stamps. "We know what it's like to be on your own and fight through existence," Murray says.
From that earnest beginning, the pair forged a friendship that achieved the country's first budget agreement in four years—and they did it during an infamously gridlocked congressional session marked by a government shutdown. (Sound familiar?) But the wordbudget never came up during their meal. What bonded them was…football. Murray is an avid fan of the Seahawks; Ryan, the Green Bay Packers. Murray filled the uncomfortable pauses during their first encounter by teasing Ryan about the Packers, and she'd do the same to relieve the pressure during the sometimes heated budget negotiations to come. "The reality is, if you focus on something that makes people human beings…if you actually find a way to be friendly with each other and understand where they are coming from, that's how you get an agreement," Murray says.
For Ryan, sports became their very language: "Basically our staffs had this notion that we'd both start from our 20-yard lines, and we'd try to get together in the middle of the field." He and Murray accepted that they couldn't "swing for the fences and get a grand-slam budget agreement," Ryan says; they'd get nowhere if they tried to thrill partisan hearts on either team.
Murray wasn't alone in her determination to break with the broken system of the past. For the first time in history, the Senate was 20 percent female. Even more importantly, women sat atop half the committees, exerting outsize influence. By the end of this rancorous term, women would produce 75 percent of the major legislation that passed the Senate, showing how different the place can be—how much more functional—when women reach a critical mass.
To some degree, the women took charge because the men had lost the ability to find common ground. In the 1990s, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich raised congressional salaries, and members started traveling home every weekend. Though the move was intended to get lawmakers outside the insular Beltway, it also gave them less opportunity to maintain relationships. Bipartisan friendships began to evaporate, and most men hardly knew people in their own party, let alone those across the aisle. But the women made a point through the 2012–13 session to continue holding regular bipartisan dinners, which had been started more than 20 years earlier by Barbara Mikulski, and from which have grown countless baby and bridal showers, dinners with spouses and children—and dozens of pieces of legislation. "We talked about important stuff, but we also talked about just everyday, personal stuff like what's the best purse to lug around the Capitol," says Hillary Clinton, who served as a New York senator from 2001 to 2009. "Like, is it true that everybody who's ever been a woman in Congress, her feet get bigger because you're on marble floors all the time? So we ran the gamut from the personal to the political."
The women are far from monolithic. They range in age from 45 to 82. New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte and New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, two of the youngest, sometimes come into the Senate muddied from a run or softball practice. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the oldest, has a prim dress code for women on her staff: stockings and skirts of a certain length. Some women are single; some are childless, and some grandmothers. Some ran for office when their children were grown. Their politics run the spectrum, from Massachusetts liberal Elizabeth Warren, the scourge of Wall Street, to Tea Party favorite from Nebraska, Deb Fischer. Some have more in common with their supposed opponents. "I'm a moderate, and there've been times when I've disagreed with my caucus," said Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, adding that former Maine Republican Olympia Snowe "really took me under her wing and said, 'I know how it feels.' "
All 20 rarely agree, which is why when they do, it's powerful. I interviewed nearly all of them—some multiple times—and can safely make a few generalizations. The women aren't necessarily less partisan than the men, but they're more inclined to listen and try to understand the other side. Many of the chairs and ranking members have visited the home states of their counterparts in the opposite party; all insist on regular meals with them to foster relationships. Fellow female senators are almost always their first call when they need partners across the aisle or advice on how to approach other members. They rarely campaign against one another, despite party lines, and have an informal agreement not to criticize one another publicly.
It's ironic that women are practically the only ones in Washington who still do business the old-fashioned way: by connecting and building trust. "You need to get to know people in order to deal with them, and there's not a lot of that right now," Ryan says. "For instance, I've only ever spoken to [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid once in my life, and that was two minutes talking about Reno, Nevada, at the inauguration. So that doesn't lend itself to working together. Patty and I…I've got her cell phone; we text each other."
Patty Murray didn't start out to be a politician. Born Patricia Lynn Johns, she and her twin sister were two of seven children. Her father was a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, and all the kids worked in his five-and-dime on Main Street in Bothell, Washington. Patty went to Washington State University, where she met Rob Murray; they married after they graduated in 1972. They had two kids, and Patty settled into the life of a soccer mom: teaching and carpooling in her childhood hometown. Then, in 1980, the state cut funding for preschool programs. Murray was aghast. So she bundled her kids, ages one and three, into the car and drove 75 minutes for her first visit to the state capital, Olympia.
"So I was going around the hall and finding who I could talk to, and one state legislator said, 'That's a nice story, but you're just a mom in tennis shoes,' " she recalled. "He dismissed me because I didn't look like what they thought everybody important should look like. So I drove home and started calling all the other moms, and they called the moms they knew—all were mad—and we were back at the state legislature." The resulting grassroots campaign restored the cuts. Murray knew she could make a difference, and went on to win elections to her school board and to the state Senate—and then came Anita Hill's televised testimony during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's 1991 Senate confirmation hearings. "It was so stark, watching these men grill this woman in these big chairs and looking down at her," Murray says. At an event that evening, she found that Hill's humiliation was all women wanted to talk about. "And I just said, I am going to run for Senate."
The next year, 1992, Murray and three other women were elected, tripling the size of the female contingent in the Senate to six; seven months later, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison became number seven when she won a Texas special election. When Murray arrived, there was no family medical leave in America. Federal funding for breast cancer research was a paltry $100 million a year. There was no state medical insurance for poor children; no support for equal pay; and no national law protecting women from domestic violence.
During her first year in office, the Senate was debating the Family and Medical Leave Act, a bill that the women had pushed hard. Murray took to the floor and spoke about a dear friend who'd been forced to quit her job to care for her dying son, nearly bankrupting her family. As Murray left the chamber, an older male senator buttonholed her. "We don't tell personal stories here," he admonished. Murray replied that she had no intention of stopping. "Years later, he apologized and thanked me," she says. "He realized that highlighting the real impact, that's how we help people understand what we're doing."
Women were kept out of certain caucuses and meeting rooms, and they didn't even get their own bathroom off the Senate floor until the end of 1993. When women rose to speak, male senators often interrupted, chiding them for their lack of knowledge or experience. While California's Dianne Feinstein was debating a ban on assault weapons in the mid-1990s, Idaho Republican Larry Craig piped up: "The senator from California, in her arguments tonight, I must say, was somewhat typical of those who study the issue for the first time. The senator from California needs to become a little more familiar with firearms and their deadly characteristics."
Feinstein quickly retorted: "I am quite familiar with firearms. I became mayor as a product of assassination. They found my assassinated colleague and you could put a finger through the bullet hole. I proposed gun control legislation in San Francisco. I went through a recall on the basis of it. I was trained in the shooting of a firearm when I had terrorist attacks with a bomb at my house when my husband was dying, when I had windows shot out."
The women endured frequent slights, insults, and dismissive behavior, not to mention an occasional groping from the notorious Strom Thurmond, who, according to several Senate staffers, once felt up Murray on the senators-only elevator. Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar tells of being ordered off that same elevator in 2007 by a male senator (whom she won't name): "This elevator is for senators only!" he barked. And as recently as 2010, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, the only woman elected to the Senate that year, was walking in the Capitol with Florida Republican Marco Rubio when an aide approached and reminded him that he and his wife needed to get an ID. "I think Marco was more embarrassed than I was," Ayotte says, smiling.
Yet the women were steadily growing in power. Senate leadership positions, which confer the authority to hold hearings and set the legislative agenda, only come to those who wait: They're doled out by seniority, and senators serve six-year terms. So it took Murray 14 years, but in 2007, she joined the leadership: chairing the Democratic caucus, the party's fourth-highest position in the Senate. Yet even then, she wasn't always included in critical negotiations. One night in 2011, at the end of the failed attempt to pass the so-called Grand Bargain—a sweeping bill to reduce the deficit by raising tax revenues and cutting spending—Majority Leader Reid summoned her to the Capitol at 11 p.m. Murray walked into a room full of men who'd been up for days trying to avert defaulting on the U.S. debt—yet no one had invited her to the confab, until they decided they wanted a woman's perspective. The men informed her that they'd struck a deal with House Republicans, except for this little matter of cuts to Planned Parenthood, which they knew they needed to fight back against.
Murray hit the roof—appalled that Republicans would try to hurt women as a final condition. Over the next three days, she organized four press conferences with female members to highlight the importance of Planned Parenthood—for contraception, mammograms, and children's health, as well as abortions. The funding was saved.
By 2013, Murray was chair of the powerful Budget Committee, and that year, for the first time ever, women headed 11 of the 20 Senate committees. California's Barbara Boxer helmed both the Select Ethics Committee and the Committee on Environment and Public Works; Michigan's Debbie Stabenow headed the Agriculture Committee; Louisiana's Mary Landrieu first chaired the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and then the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Feinstein had the Select Intelligence Committee; Washington's Maria Cantwell ran the Committee on Indian Affairs; Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski was the ranking member on the Energy Committee; Maine's Susan Collins was the top Republican on the Aging Committee; and the longest-serving woman in Congress, Barbara Mikulski, ruled the powerful Appropriations Committee with an iron fist. ("We're all afraid of her," Reid once commented.) These days, when women gather on the Senate floor during votes, the men fret over it, McCaskill says. "They worry that we're scheming, and we are." She laughs. Even with a critical mass of 20, women are seen as a kind of oddity, a disruption to normal business.
Murray's negotiations with Ryan in 2013 were the legacy of the failed Grand Bargain. When the Senate didn't reach a deal in 2011, they passed what became known as the sequester: $1.2 trillion of automatic, across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon and entitlement programs like Social Security. The sequester was designed to be so unacceptable to both parties that they'd compromise on a real budget, but it quickly became evident that the cuts were preferable to the pain of negotiating another deal. The result was a continuing series of temporary fixes—and a perpetual state of fiscal brinksmanship.
By the time President Obama won reelection in 2012, however, the country was thoroughly sick of threatened defaults and fiscal cliffs, and Congress passed a six-month extension to fund the government until September. The idea was to give Murray and Ryan's budget process some time (and to allow Congress to turn to issues such as gun control and immigration). The first step for Murray and Ryan was to get their respective chambers to pass budgets—documents that they could then work with to reach a compromise.
Her job was harder than his at this stage. The Democrat-controlled Senate feared that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would amend the budget either to strip funding from Obamacare or to force votes on issues that would be tough on Democrats up for reelection. So to win her party's support, Murray had to convince Majority Leader Reid that she could protect both the Affordable Care Act and vulnerable Democrats. "I don't think [Ryan] ever believed that I was going to get a budget," she says. "He knew that I was going to try."
Murray and many female senators legislate using what former Arkansas senator and longtime Murray friend Blanche Lincoln dubs "the PTA strategy." Put simply, they split up the work and delegate—a "high-effort, consensus-building" tactic that helps women tackle large, divisive issues more effectively than men, at least according to one Vanderbilt University study. For Murray, that meant instead of hoarding power as committee chair, she deputized her committee members such as Stabenow and freshman Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, to track the hundreds of pending amendments, especially those that the Republicans were churning out.
The PTA strategy worked. After considering hundreds of amendments, and voting on 70, Murray won passage of her budget by a vote of 50–49 on March 23, 2013. Earlier that same week, Ryan got his budget through the Republican-controlled House. They'd each won round one, but the leaders of both parties now had to designate conferees to help iron out differences between the two versions. Democrats named their negotiators, but after four years of clamoring for a budget, the Republicans suddenly grew leery. Texas Senator Ted Cruz charged that the budget-conference process was a ploy by Democrats to raise taxes. Ryan was stuck, and over the next six months, Murray went to the Senate floor 21 times to demand that Republicans name conferees and begin negotiating.
It was during this time that the women of the Senate got down to business. Barbara Boxer saw through a $12.5 billion water resources bill and $54 billion transportation legislation; Stabenow got a gigantic $955 billion farm bill passed; Mikulski shepherded through more than a dozen appropriations bills; and all 20 women came together to ensure reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. But at the end of September, everything ground to a halt. Bomb-thrower Cruz, already eyeing a 2016 presidential bid, had been encouraging House conservatives to shut down the government by refusing to give Ryan and the other Republican leaders enough votes to pass a budget bill unless Democrats defunded Obamacare. The Tea Partyers, eager for a fight, agreed. The government closed on October 1.
For the next week, senators paraded across the floor talking angrily past one another, and communication between the parties completely dried up—among the men, that is. A week into the shutdown, the female senators had one of their dinners in New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen's offices and, over pizza and wine, half-joked that if the men weren't finding any solutions, maybe they could do better.
The next day, Republican Susan Collins went to the floor to propose a compromise that would become the basis of the talks to end the shutdown. "I ask my Democratic and Republican colleagues to come together," Collins said. "We can do it. We can legislate responsibly and in good faith."
Appropriations Chair Mikulski picked up a microphone: "Let's get to it. Let's get the job done. I am willing to negotiate. I am willing to compromise." Ten minutes later, a third woman rose. "I am pleased to stand with my friend from Maine, Senator Collins, as she has described a plan which I think is pretty reasonable," said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. "I think it is pretty sensible."
A bipartisan gang of 14 senators formed, including six women, to negotiate an end to the impasse. It ended eight days later. The headlines read: "Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord"; "Men Got Us Into the Shutdown—Women Got Us Out."
The shutdown came with a silver lining: Republicans dropped their objections to the budget talks and named conferees. But due to several factors, not least of which was their mutual respect and commitment to the task, Murray and Ryan decided to negotiate one-on-one. Because they trusted each other not to leak information to the press, Ryan says, they could speak fully and honestly. "[Patty's] not emotional, and she's not lying. Some of these folks walk out of the room, and they huff and they huff. She's not like that."
Murray herself likes to recount how, after she first arrived in DC in 1993, her seventh-grade daughter wrote an op-ed in her school newspaper criticizing her mother's support of a controversial trade bill. Her kids are harder to sell than anyone in Congress, she says, not unaware of the fact that when she plays up her soccer-mom persona, people tend to underestimate her.
Right off the bat, Ryan ruled out raising taxes and wanted to keep entitlement cuts. Murray's bottom line was that no defense spending would be restored without equal increases in domestic spending. "She was a very tough negotiator. She stood her ground on a number of things. As did I," Ryan says. "Basically, we laid over three budgets [including President Obama's] on top of each other and found the common ground. It was just a smart, methodical process."
Murray adds, "I knew that he had to have a win. I knew him enough to know how we could make a story for his win, and how we could make a story for my win, so that we could reach an agreement." After Congress broke for Halloween, they conducted their negotiations over the phone—stepping away from family to chat or text ideas, lending privacy and intimacy to the talks.
Meanwhile, the Senate was lurching toward its next partisan showdown. Just before Thanksgiving, Reid, sick of the legislative logjam, moved to limit Republican filibusters, something considered so antithetical to the Senate that it was labeled "the nuclear option." The Upper Chamber is an institution designed to work on agreement. Even without the filibuster, mutual agreement is required on everything—the daily prayer, the schedule, whether bills can be debated—and when consensus is lost, time-consuming votes are required to achieve the simplest bits of business. This is what happened when Reid went nuclear. Boom. Both sides stopped talking once again.
One thing did emerge from the Senate's nuclear winter, however. Murray and Ryan's budget deal passed on December 18, well ahead of the January 1 deadline. It was a two-year pact that ended—or at least suspended—the fiscal cliffs. The House followed suit, and the president signed the bill into law the day after Christmas. The two ideological opposites had achieved what (former) Speaker Boehner, President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Vice President Joe Biden had all failed to do.
To commemorate all the grief she'd given Ryan over Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson (Wilson went to college in Wisconsin), Murray got the player to sign a jersey for him. She presented it to him as a gift when their agreement passed Congress; it's now framed, hanging on a wall in Ryan's home in Janesville.
The night of the November 2014 elections, Murray and Ryan exchanged congratulatory texts and vowed to begin work on a joint bill to create a 15-person commission to study "evidence-based policy making," using data to assess the efficacy of certain spending programs and tax credits. As Ryan had teased Murray at their Super Bowl celebration earlier in the year, "Patty, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."