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Patty Murray makes history as first female Senate pro tem

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) hugs Vice President Harris during a mock swearing-in on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was elected Senate president pro tempore Tuesday, becoming the first woman to hold the job since its inception and putting her third in the line of presidential succession.

Murray, who was elected to the Senate in 1992 as a self-proclaimed “mom in tennis shoes,” was selected for the role after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) declined to seek it. In recent years, the job has gone to the senior-most member of the majority party, which is the 89-year-old Feinstein. Murray, 72, is the second in line.

Murray in an interview Tuesday recalled joining the Senate when there were only two women in the chamber. “When I was elected, it was called ‘the year of the woman,’ and we were six. And I think a lot of the men, although they wouldn’t tell you this, were just sort of like, ‘Oh my God, what are those women going to do when they’re here?’” she joked. “And I think over time we have earned the respect of not only them but people around the country that we are serious about our roles.”

On Jan. 3, the 118th Congress began with the House failing to elect a new speaker and the Senate marking historic milestones. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Murray, wearing her signature tennis shoes, was sworn in by Vice President Harris on Tuesday afternoon to the role.

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The ceremonial job of presiding over the Senate and signing legislation comes with a security detail and increased funding for staff. Murray said she would also like to use it to be a “problem solver in the Senate” and help craft bipartisan solutions, including with the newly Republican House, to keep the government functioning — as she did in 2013, when she helped land a budget agreement with then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Murray, who won reelection to a sixth term in November, is also set to lead the Senate Appropriations Committee this year — marking the first time the powerful committee is likely to be led by four women from the majority and minority parties in the House and Senate.

While Murray ascended to her new role, House Republicans were locked in an ugly battle on the other side of the Capitol that foreshadowed what could be a new era of gridlock and infighting after two years of unified Democratic control of Congress. “If the House chooses to be dysfunctional amongst themselves and just not want our country to work, that puts us all in peril,” Murray said. “I hope they see above that. I think our country really does not want to see chaos or any kind of dysfunction.”

Murray said she’s brought a different perspective to Congress. When she became the first female chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, she widened its focus to veterans’ caregivers, as well. And she sought to include reproductive rights and child care into budget conversations. “I think often we bring a voice to the table that would be missed when it was men only,” she said. “I’m not the only woman on that committee [now]. There are other women who echo my viewpoint, and who are respected for who they are.”

When Murray won the nomination for the role last month in a meeting of Senate Democrats, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said she shared a bittersweet moment with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

“I just looked at Amy Klobuchar and just said, ‘Historic,’” Hirono said. “It’s taken women this long — ‘Yikes,’ that’s all I can say.”

Hirono recalled when Murray was elected to Congress in the 1990s with a wave of “soccer moms” and said she believes the Senate has changed significantly since that time. She said a male colleague whom she would not name recently told her he had taken Hirono’s feedback to men during the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh to “shut up and step up” and worked to get women of color elected in his state.

“I’m going to be celebrating Patty,” Hirono said.