WASHINGTON — After spending 98 percent of her time on Congress’ supercommittee since August, Sen. Patty Murray had to tell the nation on Monday that the panel had failed.
Then the Washington state Democrat went back to her office on the fourth floor of the Senate’s Russell Office Building. And she said it was painful.
“When you don’t accomplish the task at hand, you tell people you didn’t accomplish the task,” Murray said in an interview. “And it hurts. It’s hard for all of us who went into this every day.”
Murray, a fourth-term senator who served as the committee’s co-chair, blamed the panel’s collapse on “the reality of the divide of the country today” and the refusal of Republicans to accept a tax increase as part of any deal to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.
“We are at a point where some of the divides are just too far to cross at the end of the day,” she said.
Murray said the country would benefit if Americans elect more members of Congress who are willing “to work for a shared sacrifice” and who will resist the GOP mantra of no new taxes.
She predicted that change will come slowly, as more Americans begin to understand the depths of the nation’s fiscal woes.
“I felt from the beginning that I had two tasks: one, to find a balanced agreement that I knew would be hard, and one, to show the country that Congress can work,” Murray said. “So what do I feel worse about? The second question, but I also have learned so much. Tough political decisions, tough budget decisions, tough changes for our country come the more people know what the problems are.”
Leaders of both political parties praised Murray’s work.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who had chosen Murray to head the panel, said the senator had shown an “unflagging commitment to this process.”
“The American people are tired of their elected leaders listening to the extreme voices in their party instead of the voices of reason,” Reid said.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said that both Murray and Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the other co-chair of the committee, had shown a “dignified and statesmanlike manner” in allowing the committee to carry out “its difficult negotiations.”
“While I am disappointed, the House will forge ahead with the commitments we have made to reducing government spending and removing barriers standing in the way of private-sector job creation,” Boehner said. “Doing otherwise is not an option.”
Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said much of the supercommittee’s dealings were conducted out of public view, making it difficult to assess Murray’s influence.
Van de Water noted that what little breakthrough in negotiations came from plans apparently spearheaded by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chair, and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, former head of the conservative Club for Growth.
Despite the panel’s failure, Murray said that the deficit will be reduced: “If you’re just one of those people saying cut the budget, that’s going to happen, just not in a better balanced way.”
As a result of the committee’s demise, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts will be triggered in 2013, a process known as sequestration. Half of the cuts will come from the military’s budget, and half from other domestic programs.
In the end, Murray said she concluded that no deal was better than a deal that didn’t ask wealthy Americans to pay more taxes, or a “shared sacrifice,” as she put it.
“Yeah, and that’s a hard one for me,” she said. “Because sequestration is pretty painful, but I can’t put something on the table that balances the entire problem that we have on the backs of a few people, which is what happens when you just go after the spending and the entitlements.”
Murray said that leading the committee was a mix of hope, despair and frustration.
“There hasn’t been one day in the last three months that I didn’t have moments of hope and moments of despair, and sometimes they were five minutes apart,” she said. “There wasn’t one night I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and think: `Maybe if we try this.’ ’’
After immersing herself in the committee’s work for three months, Murray said she felt “like I’ve gotten 18 degrees in different topics,” studying tax policies, entitlement programs and hundreds of other domestic programs buried in the federal budget.
She said she will return to Washington state today for the Thanksgiving holiday break, then return to Capitol Hill to “continue this effort,” despite the committee’s deadlock.
“I go home and still see people out of work,” she said. “I still see people struggling. I still see an economic imbalance and I still see that debt looming. ... We are going to keep working.”
(Seattle Times reporter Kyung M. Song contributed to this story.)