House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, a 32-year veteran of Congress, wanted to have a word with 29-year-old freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.
Hoyer was not pleased to hear that Murphy was planning to break with Democratic leadership and join Republicans in voting for an extension of federal borrowing authority that included a “no budget, no pay” provision.
The measure to withhold paychecks from members of Congress if they don’t pass a budget by April 15 was derided by Democratic leaders as a Republican gimmick and an unconstitutional meddling with congressional pay. But Murphy, elected to a Republican-leaning district in November, said he saw merit in the GOP proposal.
“That one really bothered Steny Hoyer,” Murphy said of the January vote. But, Murphy said: “I feel that is Congress’ job, to have a budget. That’s one of our main things that we should be doing, so maybe this is enough pressure for us to actually come to the table and come up with something.”
It was the first in a series of largely symbolic votes in which Murphy has gone against the majority of the House Democratic caucus and voted with Republicans.
Murphy was also one of 26 House Democrats to vote for a Republican resolution calling on President Barack Obama to submit a budget that balances within 10 years. And he was one of 18 Democrats to support a GOP bill blocking Obama’s efforts to ease work requirements for welfare. Neither of those measures was considered by the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The early aisle-crossing hasn’t led Republicans to embrace Murphy, who is expected to be a top GOP target in 2014.
“He has voted a couple of times with the Republicans, but they were on soft votes,” said St. Lucie County GOP Chairman Bill Paterson.
“They have not been bellwether votes,” agreed U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee. But Rooney said Murphy deserves some credit.
“He’s definitely tried to be more independent than partisan and I think that’s commendable,” said Rooney, who before the 2012 redistricting represented many of the constituents who are now in Murphy’s Palm Beach-Treasure Coast district.
Murphy was a Republican until 2011, switching parties because he said he was displeased with the influence of the tea party movement in the GOP. He was narrowly elected last fall in a district where Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats and Mitt Romney got 51.5 percent of the vote. He unseated GOP firebrand Allen West after pledging to be a bipartisan consensus-builder who would work with both parties.
Given the competitive nature of his district, Democrats don’t mind if Murphy occasionally wanders from the party line, particularly on less consequential votes.
Despite their disagreement on the “no budget, no pay” bill, Hoyer praised Murphy as “an asset to Congress. His independent thinking, sharp instincts and efforts to work in a bipartisan fashion on critical issues are admirable.”
Soon after taking office, Murphy and Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., formed a bipartisan “United Solutions Caucus” that attempts to find common ground on deficit reduction and the national debt. The group of 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans — all freshmen — hopes to release recommendations in May.
Pittenger said he and Murphy met during orientation meetings for incoming freshmen and hit it off after a briefing in which Obama’s former budget chief, Peter Orszag, said long-term changes to Medicare and Social Security are the only way to get deficits and debt under control.
“I’m a businessman. He is an accountant by training. So we have a similar approach in terms of management,” Pittenger said of Murphy. “I think he wants to find solutions. I think we all want to find solutions. We don’t agree on everything, but we’re all committed to look at what can be done to address these enormous fiscal issues.”
Steps to ‘grand bargain’
Murphy said he’s aware that tax, spending and entitlement issues have polarized Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill for years.
“We know right off the bat we’re not going to get to a grand bargain overnight. I mean, this has been negotiated for years. We’re trying to break it down and build the steps, the building blocks to get to that point,” Murphy said.
The United Solutions Caucus formed five working groups to study different parts of the budget. Murphy is part of a group looking at Medicare and Social Security. The group has asked the Congressional Research Service to run numbers on the effects of Medicare proposals that include raising the age of eligibility, reducing benefits for upper-income retirees and allowing the government to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
On Social Security, Murphy said the group will get estimates for ideas such as raising the retirement age and raising the $113,700 cap on income subject to the payroll tax.
“Please, I’m not saying I agree with any of these,” Murphy said. “We just want to get the numbers. We want to see for ourselves what this results in. And if I’m sitting down with a Republican and we’re looking at the sliding scale and he or she wants to raise the age and I want to raise the cap, where do you find that balance? And we’re trying to be realistic about it because neither one of us can get our way 100 percent.”
Murphy campaigned against raising the eligibility age for Medicare or Social Security. But he said he might be willing to budge from that position if it’s part of a large deal that improves the long-term solvency of those programs.
“Everything’s on the table when it comes to a grand bargain,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s desire for a grand bargain led him to vote against the major Democratic and Republican budget proposals that have come before the House.
He was one of 35 Democrats to vote against a Senate Democratic plan that included about $1 trillion in tax increases over 10 years. He was one of only 28 Democrats to vote against a spending blueprint by the House Budget Committee’s ranking Democrat that included about $1.2 trillion in new taxes.
Murphy also voted against the no-tax-hike Republican budget of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
“I voted against all of them because none of them were real budgets to me. They were so partisan. A budget to me shouldn’t be a partisan agenda. It should be how we get from point A to point B,” Murphy said.
Murphy offered fairly standard Democratic criticisms of the Ryan budget. It “severely changes or privatizes” Social Security and Medicare and doesn’t raise revenue by closing tax loopholes, Murphy said.
But he was also critical of House Democrats’ main plan.
“It doesn’t address entitlements. It doesn’t talk about Social Security and Medicare. I know you can’t solve our budget, you can’t get to a good point if you don’t put that on the table. And that’s, of course, against the stereotypical Democratic line, but we’ve got to do it. It’s got to be addressed,” Murphy said.
Murphy, who turned 30 on March 30, is the youngest member in the House. He said he has learned quickly about the power of partisan gridlock in Washington, but says he and other young House members remain more optimistic than their veteran colleagues about getting things done.
“I’d say the younger generation is more apt to compromise, sort of get on with it,” Murphy said. “I’d say we’re less stuck in our ways, more willing to budge.”