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News / Northwest

How Patty Murray helped craft a compromise to fund the government despite chaos in Congress

‘Nobody thought we could get this done’

By Orion Donovan Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 25, 2024, 7:35am

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a $1.2 trillion spending package early Saturday morning to fund the government through September, narrowly averting a government shutdown, after the legislation cleared the House on Friday.

Funding the government is perhaps the most basic responsibility Congress has, but chaos in the Republican-controlled House delayed the legislation’s passage by nearly half a year. For the Washington Democrat charged with negotiating the spending deal as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, getting it done was never a sure thing.

“Would I like to have done this six months ago? Absolutely,” Sen. Patty Murray said in an interview Thursday in her office at the Capitol. “But I’ll be the first one to tell you nobody thought we could get this done.”

After the House narrowly reached the two-thirds majority needed to overcome procedural objections by Republicans, it was clear the package would pass the Democratic-majority Senate. But a last-minute effort by GOP senators to force Democrats to take politically risky votes to block amendments that would have sent the legislation back to the House — which by then had left town for a two-week Easter recess — delayed the final vote until about 2 a.m. Saturday.

Murray and the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, had to make tough decisions to keep federal spending below limits imposed by a May 2023 deal between then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Joe Biden. While funding for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security increased, some programs and agencies saw their budgets cut.

“It means that they’re working with a bit less money than in the year before on the nondefense side, at a time when costs are rising,” said David Reich, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, and a former Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee. “So things are a bit tight and Congress has to make good choices. It’s a real challenge of priority setting.”

While Murray’s role requires her to consider the entire country’s needs, she said she always has Washington state in mind. The package includes more than $3 billion for cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site — the largest amount for the long-running project — along with increased funding for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“These are things that I hear about at home, big and little,” Murray said. “When I’m sitting here and we’re negotiating the last bill, and people are pulling things out or putting things in, I can put my hand down and go, ‘No, that one’s not going anywhere.’ “

The legislation the Senate sent to Biden’s desk on Saturday is the second of two government funding packages, representing about 70% of discretionary spending. The first, less controversial set of spending bills passed two weeks earlier. Most federal spending is mandatory and not subject to yearly appropriations.

Along with their counterparts on the House Appropriations Committee — Reps. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. — Murray and Collins also had to contend with a raucous faction of hard-line House Republicans that ousted McCarthy in October and insisted on lacing the lower chamber’s spending bills with partisan policy changes that Democrats called “poison pills.”

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the funding bills got done despite those headwinds because of the legislative skill and deep experience of the four top appropriators. The current Congress marks the first time in U.S. history that women have occupied all four leadership positions on the panels.

“I think a lot of credit goes to Chairman Murray and Ranking Member Collins,” said Hoagland, who served between 2003 and 2007 as budget and appropriations director for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “These are serious legislators. They know how to get things done.”

After the House vote on Friday, Granger, who had announced her retirement at the end of the year, said she would step down from her Appropriations Committee immediately. That news came on the same day that another retiring GOP committee leader, Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, said he would leave office early, reducing the slim Republican majority to a single vote.

The House passed the package Friday morning, despite most of the Republican majority voting against it, as Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., continued a pattern of relying on Democrats to move major legislation. That provoked outrage among GOP hard-liners and led Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to file a motion on Friday that could lead to Johnson’s ouster, less than six months after his predecessor met the same fate.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane voted against the bill, as did her fellow GOP Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho and areas west of Boise. In a statement, Fulcher voiced his frustration that lawmakers had barely a day to review the package after it was released in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

“We are $34 trillion in debt,” Fulcher said. “We need to cut wasteful spending and encourage economic growth. This bill does the opposite.”

Sen. Jim Risch said before the vote that he opposed the package, but he said not passing funding bills isn’t an option.

“Those of us that vote ‘no’ on all the spending bills just have an aversion to the fact that we just keep spending money and nobody talks about how we’re going to pay for this,” Risch said.

“There’s stuff in there I really like, but there’s stuff in there I really, really hate. And that’s every bill you get here, but the deciding factor for me is that we just keep kicking the can down the road without any effort whatsoever to try to cut back on the spending.”

The Senate vote was 74-24, with 22 Republicans voting against it, including Risch and his fellow Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo. Two Senate Democrats opposed the bill: Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who protested the lack of aid for Ukraine, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who objected to the removal of all funding to the United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinians.

Many of the Republican votes for the bill in the lower chamber came from members of the House Appropriations Committee, including Reps. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and Ryan Zinke of Whitefish, Montana. Mike Simpson of Idaho Falls did not vote.

“It has a lot of things that I vehemently disagree with,” Zinke said of the spending package. But the former interior secretary said passing another short-term extension to force the U.S. military to keep working with a budget crafted in 2022 “puts this country at risk.”

“Since two years ago, the world has changed dramatically,” said Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL commander, “and the military has to have the latitude to adjust fire.”

Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, said the lawmakers who are charged with funding the government tend to have a different attitude than other members of Congress.

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“Sometimes you hear folks joke that there are really three parties in Congress: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators,” Reynolds said. “And it’s certainly true that appropriators tend to have a somewhat different outlook on the legislative process, because they sort of understand why it’s so important that things get done.”

Newhouse defended Johnson, saying the speaker was “dealt a pretty difficult hand” when he took over as GOP leader in late October.

“It’s a compromise appropriations bill,” Newhouse said. “We don’t have a huge majority and we don’t have control of the Senate, but even at that, it looks to me like we’re going to get some wins in it.”

When the six appropriations bills were released Thursday, both parties were quick to claim victory. Republicans celebrated cutting more than $100 billion from the budget Biden originally requested, which they said was the first reduction in almost a decade to overall spending on programs excluding the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Democrats touted successfully excluding dozens of partisan policy provisions Republicans had included in the House bills. The legislation also included funding to help with the cost of living, education and health care, along with 12,000 more special immigrant visas for Afghans who aided the United States and have been living in limbo since fleeing the Taliban takeover of their country.

“You don’t get a bipartisan deal unless everyone walks out and says, ‘I won,’ “ Murray said.

Another big priority for Murray is child care, for which the funding package includes a $1 billion increase.

“I see that as a national issue,” Murray said. “People are inhibited from being able to help their family economically because they can’t have a place to put their kids. I see it impacting our kids because they don’t have safe places. I see it impacting our businesses — they can’t hire people.

“So for me, being chair of Appropriations this year, I made it very clear from the start that across the committees I wanted to do anything we could in each of the committees to help address that problem.”

Despite the unusual circumstances the top appropriators have faced over the past year, Murray said the four women took the same approach as their predecessors.

“We have an obligation to make sure that we have our country function,” she said.

“And appropriations is sort of central to that. I mean, if you look at a family’s budget, you can’t be fighting every day over how much you’re going to be spending on the grocery bill. We really felt that the country needed certainty, not chaos.”

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