When President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in this week, the transition away from the Trump era may bring a Mount Rainier-level elevation of clout for Washington state.
Democratic wins in the recent Georgia runoff elections flipped the U.S. Senate from Republican control to a 50-50 tie — with Harris serving as the tiebreaker.
That lifts Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to powerful committee chair positions that will enable them to steer legislation and spending on everything from health care to schools to aviation and rail — even internet regulation and NASA.
The state’s research universities, scientific institutes and stalled infrastructure projects could benefit in the coming years, according to political observers and experts.
Murray, who was first elected in 1992 and ranks third in Democratic leadership as assistant majority leader, will chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) and is the No. 2 Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Cantwell, first elected in 2000, will be the first woman to chair the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Their ascension and combined seniority may start to rival the days of Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Democrats who served together from 1952 to 1980, wielding their massive influence to direct a gush of federal money to Washington state.
“We may be developing the female version of the strongest one-two punch we’ve ever had,” said Ron Dotzauer, a longtime Democratic political strategist who worked for Jackson and ran his final campaign. “I was around in the Scoop-Maggie era. They reaped enormous benefits for the state of Washington.”
Only three other states in 2021 will have two U.S. senators who are women —Minnesota, Nevada and New Hampshire, noted Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. And none come close to the seniority enjoyed by Murray and Cantwell.
“They are certainly a powerhouse duo,” she said.
In interviews, Cantwell and Murray were keenly aware of the Democrats’ precarious grip on the Senate levers of power, echoing Biden’s calls to seek common ground with Republicans.
“It is close. This is not like a huge majority, this is an every vote counts
majority,” Murray said. “The President Elect has made it very clear — and I know him well — (he) really wants to bring people together.”
Cantwell pointed to bipartisan legislation, including a public-lands bill that brought $75 million for water projects in the Yakima Basin, a key agricultural area that had struggled to find agreement among competing interests.
“I know we live in a world of tweets, but I think actually people in Washington state have shown that we can use science and information to find collaboration, when we don’t agree philosophically,” she said.
But the chair positions give the senators enormous discretion to decide what bills receive hearings and which presidential appointees are speedily confirmed.
“We now can set the agenda. We now can set the priorities that we’re fighting for. We now can help the constituents that I represent here in Washington state have a voice in some of the key issues facing our country, that have been left behind.” Murray said.
With committees that have such broad purviews, Murray and Cantwell struggled to rattle off a list of priorities unique to Washington state. But both cited the defining crisis of our time — the COVID-19 pandemic — saying they want to speed vaccine rollout and economic recovery.
Murray said she wants to bolster paid family leave and child care options and work to help schools return to in-person classes while addressing inequities that have only grown during the pandemic.
Cantwell said she expects to join with the Biden administration in pushing for the sort of national infrastructure that didn’t happen over the last four years. Her committee oversees transportation modes from commercial planes to rails, buses and roads.
“I think more infrastructure investment is one thing that I think we all can work on together and be successful at,” Cantwell said. “I think our states desperately need that,” she said, pointing to the West Seattle Bridge replacement as an example.
The role of Senate committee chair might seem arcane to many regular folks. But Mike Spahn, a former chief of staff for Murray, said the HELP and Commerce committees “yield uniquely powerful chairs. The impact on the actual real lives of people is so great.”
Spahn said Cantwell will be in the middle of regulating the internet for the next generation, with big stakes for local tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft, as well as politically charged monopoly and legal immunity debates for social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter.
Murray, meanwhile, will be in the middle of debates over sweeping changes to health care and education. And as the vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she’ll help direct billions of dollars in federal spending.
“That’s a good thing for the University of Washington and Washington State University,” predicted Spahn.
If Appropriations chairman Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vermont, were to retire, Murray would be in line for the job once held by Magnuson, who sent so much money to Washington state that former Vice President Walter Mondale once joked that he divided federal dollars “50-50 — half for Washington state and half for the rest of the country.”
As chair of the Senate Commerce panel, Cantwell, too, holds a position once occupied by Magnuson.
It’s not just the senators who may benefit from their increased power. Other members of Washington’s congressional delegation also have accumulated influence that could add to the state’s D.C. power ranking, especially Democrats now able to work with a friendly presidential administration.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, chairs the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, leads the centrist New Democrat Coalition.
And, although in the House minority, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, is a ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, was recently elected chair of the Congressional Western Caucus.
Having Murray and Cantwell in prime Senate positions will pay off for the entire delegation, said John Murray, a Washington-based Republican consultant who worked on Capitol Hill for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“We get so wrapped up in the partisan divide that we see on TV. But they are a delegation together that works for the betterment and benefit of the entire state. Having the senators in those positions is good for everyone,” said Murray, who is not related to the senator.
But, he added, there could be political risks for Murray and Cantwell “to get pulled way left” by the Democratic base, which could undermine efforts to work across the aisle.
“I’ve been on the other side of the ‘expectations game.’ Majorities get jammed to overpromise,” he added.
Murray and Cantwell have served together since 2001, accumulating significant power even while serving at times in the minority. Murray is now the sixth in overall Senate seniority; Cantwell is 16th.
And they’re not done.
Murray plans to seek a sixth term in 2022; Cantwell, in her fourth term, won’t face reelection until 2024. Neither has faced strong Republican challengers in recent years.
While midterm elections are often brutal for the party that holds the White House, Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democrats, said she’s relishing the thought of Murray helping lead Washington Democrats at the ballot box in 2022.
“I do think that Senator Murray is somebody that is respected and in some cases beloved on both sides of the aisle. As a top of the ticket there is no better,” she said.