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Murray to lead Senate Budget Committee

Patty Murray will be the Senate's chief budget writer next year when Congress convenes for its new session.

The Washington Democrat announced today she will seek the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, a position that will become open at the end of the year with the retirement of Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Although the position won't become official until the new Congress meets, Democrats will hold a 55-45 majority in the chamber so the result is a foregone conclusion.

The committee also considers the nation's economic policy and the budgetary impact of "everything we do and everything wie fight on," Murray said. She hopes to expand the discussions of the committee, which in recent years have focused on debt and deficits, to consider the other side of the budget: the nation's spending priorities and the investments it should make.

"It gives me a really good place to fight for the priorities of Washington state," she said, such as the cleanup of waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, better transportation systems, military and veterans issues and improved job training for health care and aerospace workers.

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Leaders of the two chambers' buget committees won't be involved in Friday's meeting at the White House to discuss ways for the nation to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and program cuts that take place at the end of the year unless Congress acts.

But they will be involved in working out the details of whatever broad agreements President Obama reaches with leaders of the House and Senate, she said.

Avoiding the fiscal cliff is a short-term question, that turns on a series of issues, Murray said. "The first one is whether or not Republicans are going to back off their protection of the wealthiest Americans" by fighting tax increases for those with incomes above $250,000.

A compromise on that will lead to agreements on other points, she predicted.

The mandatory spending cuts and tax increases are pending because a special joint committee of Congress, known as the "super committee", failed to find a budget solution last year. Murray was co-chairwoman of that panel. That experience didn't discourage her from seeking the lead of the Budget Committee; instead, it made her more interested.

"I realized how important it is to do this, and get it right," she said.

The top Republican on the panel will be Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, whom she acknowledged is "very, very conservative." They've known each other for a long time, worked together on a few issues and clashed on others, she said. That's likely to continue.

In a statement to Politico, Sessions criticized Senate Democrats for failing to pass a budget for three years and hoped Murray would change that streak. "Enough secret meetings and last minute backroom deals. The Budget Committee should do its job, as the law requires, in the full, open and public light of day. I hope Senator Murray will make that commitment."

Murray said she heard the refrain from Republicans repeatedly during the campaign season that Senate Democrats hadn't passed a budget. That ignores the fact that they passed the Budget Control Act last year which set spending levels.

"I know they don't like to recognize that," she said.

In assuming the chairmanship of the Budget Committee, Murray gives up her chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee, where she had established herself as one of the leaders in Congress for programs and care for former members of the nation's armed forces. She'll remain a member of the Veterans Committee and will "take that passion with me" to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee.

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.