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WASHINGTON – There's a disturbance in the force of the tradition-bound Senate and her name is Patty Murray.
The Washington state Democrat, once famously dubbed "just a mom in tennis shoes," is the reason behind an uncomfortable power standoff between two men who intend to lead the Democrats after Minority Leader Harry Reid retires. Murray, her quiet style and her clout amassed over 22 years in the Senate, poses a challenge to the way things work in Washington. She's poised to be the first woman in the Senate's top-tier leadership. And she's outgrown her image as the ultimate underdog, if not the mom in storied footwear.
"It's who I am," Murray, 64, says, patting a ceramic Nike sneaker decorating an end table in her Capitol Hill office.
In fact, Murray, a grandmother aiming for a fifth Senate term next year, has amassed enough power in the male-dominated Senate to be the Democrat to whom Reid turned for tasks nobody else wanted, as well as the chamber's prickliest policy fights.
Just last week, Murray was the chief Democratic negotiator on a bill to crack down on human trafficking that had been stalled for weeks over abortion. It ultimately passed, paving the way for the confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Murray twice chaired her party's campaign committee, the widely unloved job of raising and strategically spending campaign cash to keep and add Democratic-held seats. As the senior Democrat on the Senate Health and Education committee, she helped muscle to the full Senate a rewrite of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which could face a vote this summer.
Importantly, Murray's been Reid's go-to lieutenant on budget negotiations in recent years. There's considerable demand for a new effort to ease automatic budget cuts to the Pentagon and other agencies.
"She combines a kind of low-key understated Northwest touch...without the kind of in-your-face, unpleasant approach," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "I think that's really the coin of the realm here in Congress."
It's a prominent enough portfolio to give any self-promoting senator a national profile — and often, presidential ambitions. Not so, Murray. The petite, blonde-bobbed senator is not interested, or perhaps, comfortable in Washington's social circuit. She rarely appears on the Sunday talk shows and doesn't gravitate toward cameras. Murray is nearly all-substance, a very still and intense presence on the floor of the Senate amid gesticulating, extroverted colleagues.
And yet, she's a political force to be reckoned with, as Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin knows. He has been the Senate's second-most-powerful Democrat, its vote-counting whip, for a decade. When Reid announced his retirement, Durbin quickly found out that Murray could become a threat to his prospects of continuing in the job after 2016. Reid's agreed-upon successor, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the outspoken New York Democrat, has not endorsed either senator for the post.
Filling the vacuum has been speculation about Schumer's preference, Murray's ambitions and Durbin's level of support, an uncomfortable state of affairs for a caucus accustomed to drama-free transitions of power. Murray has refused to comment, saying she is focused on her job and on her re-election campaign next year. Durbin, on the other hand, quickly claimed support from more than enough Democrats to win back his job in 2016. But it's clear that the race, if one exists, isn't over.
"Oh no, this (leadership) election is 20 months away," Durbin said in a telephone interview on Friday, in which he called Murray "an incredibly effective legislator."
"People are thinking about the possibilities, I understand that," he added. "I am hopeful that everything works out for both of us."
Rick Desimone, Murray's former chief of staff and now a political consultant, said Murray's refusal to comment on that, or any other matter should not be taken as meekness.
"That's an underappreciated trait of hers: Sometimes she is seriously competitive," Desimone said. "She wears that a little bit differently than other people in Washington, D.C."
For her part, Murray declines several invitations to share her thoughts on the leadership race. Instead, she says she's focused on her constituents and to the policy tasks at hand, describing a relentless cycle of keeping both East and West Coast hours, flying home every weekend to her family and taking long walks with her husband, Rob — and back to the nation's capital.
"Look, my watch is on Washington state time," she says, pushing up a navy blue jacket sleeve. "I never change it."
The home-state loyalty is something she has in common with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, whose family remains in Wisconsin, and with whom Murray negotiated a 2013 deal to fix automatic budget cuts that were rocking the Pentagon and domestic agencies. Over the phone and in Murray's office steps from the Capitol's Rotunda, they each made significant concessions in talks that both tout as a point of pride. Murray suggested that, for her, the larger goal was proving that Congress could work in an era of unprecedented polarization.
"She's very tough in defense of her policy and principles. But she's nice about it," and that distinguishes Murray from many of Congress' ideologues, Ryan said in a telephone interview. "We trash talk each other on football all the time, and she does it in good jest."