Odd couple chairs supercommittee, shares power

By Laurie Kellman

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 7 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2011, file photoSen. Patty Murray answers a question during a news conference following a visit to the headquarters of Amazon.com in Seattle. When Rep. Jeb Hensarling and Murray on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011, gavel into session a super panel burdened by the nation’s fiscal future, they’ll be leading wonky discussions about spending cuts and tax policy and trying to get a majority of their 12-member panel to sign on. But their conduct, and their work product, also will begin answering a fundamental question: Can these ambassadors from the left and right, stripped of their independence and saddled with all manner of carrots and sticks, govern?

Elaine Thompson, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — He's a lanky Texas conservative who chose law school over chicken farming. She's a liberal from Seattle with steel in the toes of her famous tennis shoes. They have almost nothing in common.

Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray are the Capitol's latest odd couple, two of Congress' most partisan lawmakers co-chairing the new supercommittee that begins work Thursday on a bipartisan deal to slow the nation's mushrooming debt.

They have plenty of reasons to get to "yes." Blowing a Thanksgiving deadline for a plan to shave federal deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade would trigger automatic cuts to defense and social programs dear to their respective parties.

Failure also wouldn't do much for Congress' standing in the eyes of jittery investors or the public going into next year's elections. Already, 87 percent of those polled disapprove of the job Congress is doing.

But "no" beckons, too. Hensarling's uncompromising demands for spending cuts, now central to his party's agenda, appeal to a Republican base that party leaders are depending on to defend their House majority.

"There will be a lot of pressure on him to work with her, but there's nothing in Jeb Hensarling's history to suggest he'd be willing to do that," said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

Murray is Hensarling's ideological opposite, a dogged fighter on behalf of veterans, health and workplace safety programs and regulations.

"There's not a lot there that would indicate that deficit reduction would be a priority for her," said John Wilkerson, a political scientist at the University of Washington.

Neither has to vote for the committee's package in the end. Their role is to make it possible for a majority of the panel to pass it.

So far, they're together on the logistics.

"I've talked to him more than my kids in the last three weeks," Murray told reporters Wednesday. "We're doing good."

Aides say the two have agreed on the need for a serious and respectful tone. They're sharing staff, turning down most interviews and steering clear of the hard lines on taxes and spending that hobbled President Barack Obama's negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner.

Much more complex and far-reaching policy questions loom, the same ones that confounded Obama and Congress. But this time, the rules are different, designed to put the 12-member panel's fingerprints directly on any deal — or their failure to reach one.

The stakes are highest for the pair of partisan warriors directing the proceedings.

Murray, who turns 60 next month, was elected in 1992's "year of the woman" in part by turning an insult — a bureaucrat derided her as "a mom in tennis shoes" — into a rallying cry. Don't be fooled by the nurturing image. She owes her plum assignment in part to a willingness to play hardball over two decades on Capitol Hill.

She is the first woman to chair the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, a policy area with personal roots. Her father, Dave, won the Purple Heart as one of the first GIs to land on Okinawa and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was a teenager.

She also is her party's Senate campaign chief for the 2012 elections, when the seats of 21 Democrats and two independents will be on the ballot with the party's majority at stake. Murray took the post after others had turned it down, one reason Majority Leader Harry Reid elevated her to the high-profile helm of the supercommittee, Democratic officials said.

"Absolute proof that Democrats are not serious about deficit reduction," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said of Murray's appointment last month. "The select committee is no place for someone whose top priority is fundraising and politics."

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