WASHINGTON — As official Washington speculates on what Sen. Patty Murray's presence might mean on Congress' new debt-reduction committee, one thing is clear: Her contribution to the 12-member panel ultimately could depend on which Patty Murray shows up for work.
Will it be Murray the compromiser, the former preschool teacher who voted in 2001 for President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, even though she worried that it would put too much emphasis on high-stakes tests?
Or will it be Murray the partisan, the champion of Social Security, Medicare and a myriad of other social programs who's been busy blasting Republicans for their intransigence in dealing with the national debt this year?
No one knows the answer except the Washington state Democrat, who suddenly has one of the hottest jobs on Capitol Hill. She's a co-chair of the "super committee" that's charged with finding a way to trim the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion.
As Murray prepares for her new assignment as one of the nation's top budget-cutters, she's getting a good taste of what her life will be like for the next 101 days.
On her first day as co-chair, Murray faced criticism from the left and the right, with some calling for her resignation unless she stops raising money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Her different roles are prompting questions as she starts leading the bipartisan panel, which must come up with its plan by Nov. 23.
As the chief fundraiser for Senate Democrats in 2012, Murray will be tempted to make decisions that favor political candidates over deficit reduction, critics fear.
And others worry that Murray, as the chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, could be influenced by her close ties to firms such as Boeing and Microsoft and her desire to steer defense money to Washington state, which has a large military presence.
Murray, the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran who worked her way through college, has been particularly vocal on veterans issues this year. She's pushed hard for increased federal aid to fight homelessness and unemployment among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She's been uncompromising for veterans so far, in a good way," said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Anytime anybody has gone near threatening cuts, she's stood up strong for us. She's an advocate all the way."
Murray, the second-ranked Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee and a veteran appropriator, relished delivering money for pet projects to her home state before Congress clamped down on earmarks.
Critics fear that she'll be under intense pressure to use the super committee to deliver favors to vulnerable Senate candidates next year.
"Senator Patty Murray may be a fine senator, but putting Senate Democrats' leading fundraiser in charge of a committee that will see a lobbying push like never before sends the wrong message to the American people," said Nick Nyhart, the president of Public Campaign, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group in Washington.
Murray also worries some Democrats, who fear that despite her unwavering support for social programs, she might be too eager to make deals on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Earlier this year, she signed a letter to President Barack Obama that urged him to engage in a broad discussion about reducing the deficit, including "discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform."
Murray, the only woman among the 12 committee members, has had little to say, beyond making it clear that she has no plans to resign from any of her posts.
After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appointed her to the position Tuesday, Murray released a statement — along with fellow committee members Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Max Baucus of Montana — in which she pledged to set aside "the red-hot partisanship and brinksmanship of the last months."
And at a news conference Wednesday in Seattle, the self-described "mom in tennis shoes" said she was approaching the job "with a seriousness and an overwhelming sense of responsibility." She asked that the news media and the American people be patient with the panel and "give us a little space and time, and try not to pigeonhole each and every one of us, or throw rocks, and to allow us the ability to look each other in the eyes and find common values that we have to move forward."
That hasn't stopped the clamor in Washington.
Public Campaign organized a letter signed by two dozen public-interest groups that demands that Murray stop all fundraising for Democrats. The group also said that if Murray remained in the position she must insist that all meetings be conducted in public, with full transparency.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Murray's appointment "is absolute proof that Democrats are not serious about deficit reduction," adding that Murray's top priority in Washington "is fundraising and politics." He called on Reid to withdraw her appointment.
Kirby Wilbur, the chairman of the Washington state Republican Party, said that having Murray as a co-chair "is like asking a fox to guard a henhouse."
"Senator Murray has absolutely no history of cutting spending, ever," he said.
But as a result of her longtime tenure and powerful posts, Murray also has plenty of friends, and they've been quick to come to her defense.
As the criticism mounted last week, Murray, a 60-year-old fourth-term senator, even received help from the White House.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president didn't think she should stop fundraising, calling it a "small-bore" political issue.
"Elected members of Congress are responsible. They take an oath. They are responsible to serve their constituents and their country," Carney said. "We expect every member on that committee to take that responsibility seriously. ... And I think that it's just silly criticism."
In Washington state, Dwight Pelz, the chair of the state's Democratic Party, said Murray was "exactly the type of leader we need" to head the committee. He said Republicans should stop "lobbing bombs" at the state's senior senator.
"The GOP is upset because they know Patty will make corporations and Big Oil share in the sacrifice," Pelz said. "We say it's about time."
(Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011