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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: As head of Appropriations Committee, Patty Murray hopes to be role model for more effective Congress

Washington Sen. Patty Murray will become the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee when Congress convenes in January.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Who is one of your state’s U.S. senators now?

WASHINGTON – In the final legislative act of the 117th Congress, House and Senate lawmakers last week passed a $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations package, averting a government shutdown and funding federal programs through the end of the fiscal year.

While members of Congress surely would have liked to leave the Capitol earlier, it was appropriate timing for what’s informally dubbed a “Christmas tree bill,” so called because – as one of the few pieces of legislation that routinely passes in most years – it winds up bedecked in various measures that otherwise wouldn’t become law.

It was also a reminder of the power wielded by the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which effectively signs the checks for every federal program. When the 118th Congress convenes in January, that person will be Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who will also be third in line for the presidency as the first woman ever to serve as Senate president pro tempore.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review at the Capitol, Murray reflected on her three decades in the Senate and talked about how she intends to lead the Appropriations Committee in an era of divided government as Republicans take control of the House.

“It is every aspect of what we do as a country, together, with our resources, and how that is appropriated and divided out,” she said of the committee’s work. “It’s an opportunity for me to work with – as I always have – every community in our state, to be able to make sure we’re meeting their needs.”

While the senator is stepping away from her official position in party leadership, in which she has helped craft Senate Democrats’ messaging, she figures to remain a key player in communicating her party’s priorities as head of the Appropriations panel. When her constituents hear about the money the federal government spends, Murray said, she knows many of them think, “Why are we doing it?”

“We’re doing it so that your kids get a public education,” she said. “We’re doing it so that our wheat farmers, if they suffer losses, have the capability to remain wheat farmers. We’re doing it so that our ports have the infrastructure that we need, so products can come in and they can get across the country. I mean, everything we do has a purpose. We’re not very good at communicating those purposes, and I see this as a real opportunity to do that.”

Murray, who won a sixth term in office in November, said she knew when she first got to the Senate in 1993 that she wanted one of the highly sought-after seats on the Appropriations Committee, which are seldom given to freshmen. When she met with the late Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who then chaired the panel, to ask for a seat, Murray recalled that Byrd asked her how she intended to vote on a bill that would let a president remove specific line items from a spending bill.

While she had publicly opposed the line-item veto during her campaign, agreeing with Byrd’s position, Murray recalled thinking, “That is not how you should get things done,” and she said she told Byrd as much.

“I got the drift, you know,” Murray said. “And I felt that power was not how we should legislate.”

Evidently, Byrd didn’t find her response disqualifying, because she got a seat on the Appropriations Committee.

“I’m sitting here today because I stood up for a principle I believed in, speaking to a chair who felt very strongly about that issue,” Murray said. “That gave me an opportunity that is incredible, to the point where today I’m chair of that committee, sitting where Sen. Byrd did many years ago.”

With Murray’s ascendance to the top appropriator role and fellow Democrat Maria Cantwell continuing to chair the Senate Commerce Committee, Washington state likely has more clout in the Senate than it has since Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson served together in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Meanwhile, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, is set to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Even as she has become a major player in national policy and politics, Murray said her highest responsibility is to listen to people in Washington state and speak for them in the other Washington, because they “live far away from here and they need a voice in every policy that we pass.”

Shortly before she sat down with The Spokesman-Review, Murray met with Charlie Monroe and Charlie Bourg, two Eastern Washington veterans who traveled to D.C. to ask Congress to scrap a troubled computer system the Department of Veterans Affairs began testing at its Spokane hospital in 2020.

“We have to represent those people we represent and hear their voices, and no one can be told to be quiet or you don’t count,” she said. “That is what brought me here, and it’s what I continue to do today.”

When she reflects on her three decade in Congress, Murray said, “I think what is most fascinating is how different this place can be based on the people that are in the Senate.”

Back in 1993, she recalled, the Senate was more of an “old boys’ club” run by “old bulldogs” like Democrats Howell Heflin of Alabama and David Pryor of Arkansas. Her attitude, on the other hand, is “just listen to people and work with them.”

“I mean, I’ve been here through economic disasters, I’ve been here through 9/11, Jan. 6, the Iraq War, War in Afghanistan, Ukraine War, domestic issues that have been enormous – a pandemic,” Murray said. “How you react with people here, and how you work with them and how you listen to them makes all the difference in what gets done.”

While expectations for bipartisan legislating are low with Republicans taking control of the House in January, Murray said she believes the Appropriations Committee can remain a place where deals between the parties get done. Her incoming GOP counterpart on the panel, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, is a moderate who has led an Appropriations subcommittee with Murray in the past.

“I have a history of working with her,” Murray said of Collins. “I’m already talking to her. We’re trying to figure out a way that we can use the Appropriations Committee to help get progress done.”

With the retirement of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the outgoing Appropriations chair, Murray will also become Senate president pro tempore, the most senior member of the majority party and third in the presidential line of succession. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has served a few months longer than Murray but turned down the role.

While the position is largely symbolic, Murray said she doesn’t take the role lightly. No woman has ever served as “pro tem.”

“It’s obviously historic, and I think it’s an opportunity for me to be in a unique place in the Senate at a really critical time,” she said.

“I think our country has gone through some real struggles,” Murray said, and she sees the pro tem role as an opportunity to serve as a “role model and help our Senate become more of a governing body that works together. And I hope that’s part of the legacy I can leave.”