The Democratic Leadership Is Feeling Lonely for the GOP

"To be a good country, we need a strong Republican Party,” says Senator Patty Murray.
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Associated Press

Veteran Democrat Patty Murray is missing the Clinton White House, but not for the reasons you might think. The looming threat of government shut down is making her long for an era of strong Republican leaders.

“Everybody here knows that the way you get to a budget agreement is that the House Republicans and the Senate Democrats and the White House sit down and hammer it out, just like we did in the Clinton years,” she said during an Atlantic interview with MSNBC’s Karen Finney on Wednesday.

Who would have thought a top Democrat would miss Newt Gingrich? Especially considering the 28-day government shutdown forced by the standoff over the 1996 budget, her nostalgia is particularly surprising. But according to Murray, her party’s leaders are feeling unusually empathetic toward moderate Republicans these days, mostly because they have a common enemy.

“The problem right now is that the Republicans here are being controlled by the Tea Party part of the group,” said Murray. “They came here to vote no. It is extremely hard when you’re in the majority to have all your members only vote no, and that’s what Speaker Boehner is dealing with right now.”

This week’s budget standoff on Capitol Hill is proof of this phenomenon. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party hero from Texas, staged a 21-hour “fauxlibuster” to speak against the enactment of Obamacare. Ostensibly, he hoped the threat of government shutdown would force a delay, although in actuality, his tactics didn’t make much legislative sense. Senior GOP leaders have also signaled that they’re willing to use the threat of shutdown as a negotiating tool for their larger budget agenda. At the top of their list: preventing Congress from raising the debt ceiling, or increasing the amount of debt it allows itself to take on.

Murray seemed exasperated by these tactics. “We’re just talking about a few weeks of keeping the government open while we decide the bigger issues,” she said. “This is not the big kahuna, this is just how we manage ourselves. They’ve decided to make a big temper tantrum about that – it’s a little weird.”

Her sour perspective on the debt ceiling issue is particularly poignant, considering that she chaired the failed 2011 Super Committee that was supposed to create a long-term agreement on the deficit. But in her interview, she pointed a finger at Republicans, saying that the problem Congress faced then was similar to the problem it faces now: Republican leaders weren’t able to deliver the votes needed for compromise.

“The 12 people on that super committee were really good people,” she said. “But I had the ability in that room as the Democratic chair to say, ‘I can bring my caucus with me.’ What I didn’t have in the room was a Republican chair who could say the same thing. He had to go back to Boehner, who went to the Tea Party.

“In order to be a good country,” she said, “we need a strong Republican Party who can negotiate with us.”

Murray even went so far as to offer some tips to her colleagues on the Hill. “I really hate to give advice to my Republican counterparts because I want to stay in the majority and I want to win. But if you forced me to, I would say to them, ‘You need to stand up to the Tea Party,'" Murray said. Of course, there's a good reason Republican leaders aren't already taking this stand: It's not a political battle they're likely to win.

Still, Murray continued, "People want their legislators to work from a point of courage, not from a point of fear – and that’s why Tea Party members are winning.” Then she smiled coyly. “Could you not tell them I said that?”

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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