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Six women who could lead Congress to a budget deal

Senator Patty Murray is one of six women on the budget conference committees (The Washington Post) Senator Patty Murray is one of six women on the budget conference committees (The Washington Post)

Women in Congress played an outsized role in ending the government shutdown earlier this month. But the solution only funded federal agencies through mid-January. This week, as lawmakers grapple with a new round of budget negotiations t0 fund the government past Jan. 15, female senators and representatives could take center stage once more.

Five women — three Democrats and two Republicans — join co-chair Sen Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on the 29-member budget conference committee that will work to reconcile the differences between the budgets that the House and Senate each separately passed earlier this year and present a single budget by the Dec. 13 deadline.

Murray, who heads the Senate budget committee, will partner with her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), to lead the effort. The two have sharply different approaches to the federal government’s spending and taxation priorities, and Murray’s not fooling herself in thinking that the conference committee will adopt either the Senate’s or the House’s previously passed budget. As she said when the committee members were announced:

“Chairman Ryan knows I’m not going to vote for his budget. I know that he’s not going to vote for mine. We’re going to find the two common — the common ground between our two budgets that we both can vote on. And that’s our goal.”

Let’s see where Murray and the other women stand on the budget, starting with the Democratic senators, all of whom are members of the Senate Budget committee.

Murray, a 63-year-old Washington native, was on 2011’s Budget Control Act “Super committee” that was charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade. Its failure to do so led to the automatic spending cuts in defense and discretionary spending known as sequestration that came into effect on March 1. Murray says that addressing the nation’s debt requires compromise and a “grand bargain” with compromise from all sides that involves both spending cuts and new revenue.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a 63-year-old Michigan native, appears ready to offer a compromise — although not in favor of new revenue. The Michigan senator would like to get rid of the 2.3 percent tax on medical devices that helps pay for the insurance subsidies in President Obama’s signature health-care law. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the tax on medical devices such as pacemakers, CT scans, and artificial knees and hips (but not on wheelchairs, eyeglasses and hearing aids, which are exempt) will raise $29 billion over 10 years. Collins had offered to repeal the medical device tax during the negotiations. Stabenow is also on the farm bill committee and has indicated that savings from the farm bill can contribute to the budget.

Tammy Baldwin, a 51-year-old first term Democratic senator from Wisconsin, is a champion of investment in science, technology and research, and is opposed to sequestration, which has cut $1.55 billion from the National Institutes of Health. She favors restoring research funding, saying in a speech at the University of Wisconsin that,“According to independent economists, the damaging cuts from the sequester are slowing down the economy. Locking in these devastating cuts will gut investments in research, science, and innovation.”

After being chosen for the committee, Democratic representative Nita Lowey of New York said that “We must have a budget that creates jobs, strengthens the middle class, and responsibly reduces the deficit.” Lowey voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011 that raised the debt ceiling from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion and set up the procedures that led to sequestration. Lowey is the ranking member of the Appropriations committee that sets the amount of money the federal government can spend. The 76-year-old native New Yorker has shown some flexibility in her approach to federal spending. Earlier this year at a brunch hosted by Politico and Bank of America, she called for a return to earmarks.

Two Republican women are on the budget conference committee: Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee.

In contrast to Lowey, Ayotte would like to ban earmarks permanently. The 45-year-old first term senator would also like to require the federal government to balance its budget and joined her Republican colleagues in introducing a Balanced Budget Amendment that would limit federal spending to 18 percent of the economy.

Black, although only in her second term, yields an outsize influence on the budget conference committee for three reasons:  She’s a member of the Budget Committee; a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where all tax measures must be considered; and she caucuses with the tea party.

The 62-year-old registered nurse is strongly opposed to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. She has introduced an “income verification” provision that would require the government to verify whether everyone who receives federal subsidies through the health-care law meets the earnings test. The shutdown deal that Congress approved does include an income verification provision, but not the one that Black preferred. Black is not pleased with the bill’s provision, telling Fox Business News that the test had been “corrupted” in the deal.

Despite her tough language,however, Black may be willing to compromise. “I don’t want to set the expectation at any particular level since we have not met and talked about the details, but what I will tell you is that we can work together on these big issues,” she told the Tennessean. “There is hopefulness that the Congress is ready and the American people are ready for us to work together.”

The ability of these six women to bring about a compromise faces its first challenge when the committee meets on Wednesday.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.

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