Patty in the News

In the government funding and debt-ceiling drama playing out on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats have found a leading lady.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has attempted to go to conference on the Senate Democratic budget more than a dozen times this year. Each time Republicans have objected, worried that their House colleagues would agree to a deal on funding the government, raising the debt ceiling, or both.

The result is that, just as Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have become the face of conservative opposition to Obamacare, Murray has taken up the Democratic standard on sequestration and the budget.

As the Budget Committee chairwoman, Murray has gone to the Senate floor more than any other Democrat to seek an agreement on heading to conference. Her message often carries two major party talking points: Republicans are divided over how to proceed on the fiscal fight, and the public would blame the GOP for a government shutdown or a default.

“We know that the American people are sick and tired of House Republicans pandering to the tea party and pushing us from one artificial crisis to the next,” she said recently.

The reality, according to public polling, suggests the public is not entirely on the Democrats’ side, however.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that Americans overwhelmingly oppose raising the debt ceiling. By 44 percent to 22 percent, respondents said they do not want the government to raise the limit. The percentage of Americans opposing an increase is up 13 points over July 2011, when Congress and the White House last brawled over the debt ceiling.

Polling on a government shutdown, on the other hand, does look better for Democrats. Fifty-one percent of Americans say they would blame Republicans for a shutdown, according to a recent CNN/ORC International poll, while about a third would point to President Obama.

The split raises questions about whether the Democrats are right to think the public would back them. For now, that appears to be their operating assumption, as Democrats maneuver in advance of the close of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 and as the Treasury nears the statutory debt limit, expected in mid-October.

“I will tell you the vast majority of Americans want us to work together, and they want this government to function once again,” Murray said.

That thinking helps explain in part why Democrats have gone to the floor 18 times to try to get a conference on the budget—and why, after the first few times Republicans rebuffed them, they continued to try that approach.

“The hope is that at some point the Republican leadership will realize they can’t do deals with the tea party,” said a Democratic Senate aide.

Publicly, Murray is still hopeful about reaching a conference committee, but she is not ruling out “other paths” to an agreement over funding the government, said Budget Committee spokesman Eli Zupnick. Democrats, though, are reluctant to discuss any details.

At issue is which discretionary spending topline figure to adopt. Senate Democrats use a figure of $1.058 trillion, which does not include the sequestration cuts. A House GOP leadership figure assumes $986 billion in annual spending, which does reflect sequestration.

For now, Senate Democrats appear to be waiting on the House, where Speaker John Boehner halted a vote last week on a two-month continuing resolution to keep the government funded (that measure used the $986 billion topline figure).

Zupnick said Murray backs the figure adopted in the budget that passed the Senate and would not speculate on whether she could accept a lower figure.

“Right now, we’re waiting to see what the House can pass,” he said. “Then we’ll take a look at that.”

- National Journal