U.S. Sen. Patty Murray will likely be the first woman to serve as Senate president pro tempore, a position that would place her third in line for the presidency. Murray will also likely chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, controlling the federal purse strings and directing billions of dollars of spending.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer plans to nominate Murray, who was just elected to a sixth term, to the position, Murray’s office said Wednesday.
The Senate president pro tem presides over the Senate in the vice president’s absence. The position is third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and the House speaker.
Murray, in an interview Wednesday, called the nomination “an honor.”
“It’s not lost on me, the significance that I’ll be the first woman to serve as president pro tem,” she said. “I’m looking at it in terms of what I can continue to do to help accomplish things for families in Washington.”
The current Senate president pro tem, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, is retiring after his term ends in January. The position is largely ceremonial but does have several other responsibilities. The president pro tem, along with the House speaker, appoints the director of the Congressional Budget Office, and appoints Senate legislative and legal counsels.
The president pro tem, if the vice president is absent, can administer Senate oaths of office, sign legislation and preside, with the House speaker, over joint sessions of Congress.
Senate Democrats will vote to confirm Senate leadership positions, including president pro tem, the week of Dec. 5. Senate Republicans, in their own caucus vote, on Wednesday reelected Mitch McConnell as minority leader.
Murray will be the fourth-most senior member of the next Senate, and the second-most senior Democrat. Murray’s office said she would step down as the assistant Democratic leader, the No. 3 spot among Senate Democrats, to focus on her roles as president pro tem and her committee chairmanship.
Murray called the chance to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee “an incredible opportunity in Washington state,” saying she would be overseeing all federal spending and could ensure Washington projects would be prioritized.
Murray waltzed to reelection this year, handily defeating Republican Tiffany Smiley in an expensive race that many predicted would be closer than it ultimately was. Murray led with more than 57% of the vote as of Wednesday morning.
She’s said her top priorities for the next Congress are codifying abortion rights, passing voting rights legislation and expanding access to affordable child care. But, she also repeatedly said, Democrats would codify abortion rights if they got 52 votes in the Senate and kept control of the House of Representatives. They will have either 50 or 51 votes in the Senate, and the GOP won a House majority Wednesday.
“Women’s reproductive rights and voting rights are still a top priority,” Murray said Wednesday. “And I do not want to presuppose how people will vote in a new Congress.”
If she’s unsuccessful, she said, “it’ll be up to voters in 2024.”
She plans on offering, again, her legislation to lower child care costs and said she would make it a priority in the appropriations process.
She stressed past bipartisan legislation that she’s led — a budget deal with then-Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan in 2013, updates to No Child Left Behind with then-Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander in 2015 and pandemic prevention legislation that she hopes to pass with North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr in the current lame-duck session of Congress — and said she’ll look for partners from both parties.
“It may not be my perfect bill,” she said, “but if we can make progress and more families have access to child care, because we can make some changes and move that in a bipartisan way, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
First elected in 1992, Murray, should she complete her term, would be among the longest-serving senators in American history. As soon as she begins her next term, in January, she will become the second-longest-serving female senator in history, trailing only her Democratic colleague, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein said recently she wasn’t interested in the president pro tem position, which, since the mid-20th century, has usually gone to the most senior member of the majority party.
Murray, after first winning office, came in as part of the so-called Year of the Woman. She was one of four women elected to the Senate that year, when it had only two.
“She is in that groundbreaking group of women that came in during the Year of the Woman, and she has had the staying power,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “She doesn’t garner the headlines that some of her colleagues do but has really been, I think, an important leader on the Democratic side in the Senate.”
Walsh said Murray helped break the male-dominated hold on the Senate, and that her often-told story of being dismissed by a state lawmaker as “a mom in tennis shoes” has resonated with a generation of women.
“I think people think of it as a cliché now, but it really disrupted the image of who could lead,” Walsh said. “She really kind of showed them what a mom in tennis shoes could do, and I think in that way opened the door for other women in elective office in the state of Washington but also nationally.”
In a debate last month, just before the election, Smiley tried to use the image against her.
“Sen. Murray’s not the mom in tennis shoes anymore,” Smiley said in the debate, held in Seattle.
Murray, in response, leaned over and stared quizzically at the sneakers on her feet.
On Wednesday, Murray told a story about what it was like joining the male-dominated Senate in 1993.
A group of young women was visiting her office in Washington, D.C., asking her about the job.
“And I said, ‘You know if I can do this, so can you,’ ” Murray recalled. “And this young girl, she’s probably in high school, said directly to me, ‘I’m watching to see if you can succeed, if you succeed, then I’ll consider it.’ And I’ve always felt the weight of that. I’ve got to be able to do a good job so other women will do this.”
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This story has been corrected to show that former U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan represented Wisconsin. An earlier version gave the wrong state.