How Patty Murray Won $1 Billion for Child Care as Congress Is Deadlocked

Senator Patty Murray got inspired to enter politics when a male state legislator derided her efforts to fight budget cuts to early education programs, calling her “just a mom in tennis shoes” — a remark she would proudly adopt as her campaign slogan.

So it came as little surprise that more than 40 years later, Ms. Murray, now the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, managed to emerge from excruciating negotiations over funding the federal government with a big victory aimed at children and families. Tucked into the $1.2 trillion spending law Congress cleared last week was an additional $1 billion for a single year for child care and early education programs.

Ms. Murray accomplished that feat against substantial political headwinds. Negotiators in Congress had to abide by the debt and spending deal agreed to last year by President Biden and the speaker at the time, Kevin McCarthy. Their agreement effectively froze expenditures on everything except the military, translating into deep cuts to social programs.

But Ms. Murray, together with Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, her Democratic counterpart in the House, pushed Republicans to accept a 9 percent increase in spending for child care subsidies for low-income families, and a $275 million increase in spending for Head Start, the federal program for low-income preschool children.

“This is always something I focused on,” Ms. Murray said in an interview in the Capitol suite reserved for the leader of the budget panel. “But when I took on the chair of Appropriations and looked across the wide spectrum of bills that I would be in charge of writing, I thought, ‘Here is where we can finally really make a difference.’”

It comes at a time when the child care system is under intense strain. A vast federal infusion of temporary funds that Ms. Murray and Ms. DeLauro helped secure during the coronavirus pandemic to prop up child care programs has expired, pushing an already precarious system to the brink.

Previous leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful perches in Congress, have historically used their pens to steer funding to their own priorities — usually to benefit their home states. For Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, it was the port of Mobile and Redstone Arsenal, the U.S. Army base in Huntsville that is home to the F.B.I. and N.A.S.A.’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii prided themselves on hauling in federal dollars for their underserved states.

For Ms. Murray, the first woman to helm the committee, it is child care, an issue that historically has had few powerful constituencies on Capitol Hill. It is the continuation of decades of work aimed at strengthening families’ access to affordable child care.

When the pandemic hit, Ms. DeLauro and Ms. Murray, then the chairwoman of the health and labor spending subcommittee, secured an additional $15 billion for child care programs and $24 billion in child care subsidies in the 2021 stimulus bill. The measure kept more than 220,000 child care providers across the country afloat during the pandemic, sustaining child…

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