Updated Friday, November 16, 2012 at 05:44 AM
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said Thursday she would seek the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, a perch that could further amplify her role in shaping far-reaching decisions about the nation's fiscal future.
Murray, who is the budget panel's second-most senior Democrat, would take over the helm from retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. The committee is responsible for writing an annual blueprint for spending on education, housing, transportation and other discretionary outlays by the federal government.
Murray's announcement came a day before President Obama was scheduled to meet with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to forge a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff," a $500 billion-plus mix of automatic spending cuts and tax increases slated to go into effect Jan. 1.
Murray plans to give up chairmanship of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in exchange. The switch would give her greater say to ensure any budget agreement protects investments in early-childhood education, job training, infrastructure and other programs.
"The Budget Committee gives me a tremendous opportunity to really help shape the policies for our country moving forward," Murray said.
Murray would be taking charge of a committee whose work largely has been stymied in recent years by a deep ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans about the size of the federal government. Senate Democrats have not put a budget resolution — an outline of federal spending that is the committee's main task — up for vote since 2009.
The same political morass also has kept Congress from passing annual appropriations bills that keep government agencies funded. Instead, the nation has been lurching from one stopgap spending bill to the next, coming within hours of a government shutdown in April 2011.
In summer of 2011, the GOP succeeded in extracting huge reductions in the federal budget in return for raising the federal debt ceiling. But it is those very spending cuts — along with the expiration of Bush-era income-tax cuts — that constitute the impending fiscal cliff.
Murray said compromise is possible, but not until Republicans drop their "insistence that they're going to protect the wealthiest Americans from being part of the solution to the budget challenge."
Murray has few rivals in Congress on tax and spending issues. She is the No. 4 Senate Democratic leader, and a key liberal voice in urging the president to stand firm on renewing income-tax cuts only for the middle- and lower-income families.
In 2011, she co-chaired the bipartisan deficit-reduction "supercommittee" that failed to find ways to reduce federal red ink by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. She also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which allocates money to discretionary programs.
Murray is likely to get the nod to take over the budget panel when committee leadership posts are finalized later this year. She will retain her seat on the veterans committee. She also will continue as chair of two subcommittees, one on the Appropriations Committee and another on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee.
David Kendall, senior fellow for health and fiscal policy at Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based centrist think tank, said Murray is positioned to both help hammer out a compromise budget and oversee how it gets carried out.
"She showed she was a capable negotiator during the supercommittee. She has had years of experience in the Senate and knows how the budget process works," Kendall said. "She will have a critical voice."
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Sen. Patty Murray