Stephanie Murphy: Q&A with one of Congress’ most influential politicians this week

ORLANDO, Fla. — This fall, Democrats in Washington are finding themselves in a precarious position. A years-long trend of politicians piling multiple, semi-related measures into a single bill has suddenly grown – and so have the stakes.

Up to five major and/or must-pass bills are currently on the verge of votes – and splitting the legislative branch into factions. Liberals are squaring off with moderate Democrats and Republicans, who are also facing pushback from conservatives.

Central Florida’s Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D) usually prefers to work on legislation instead of being at the center of media attention. However, her position as one of the few moderate Democrats has given her enormous influence over the process. Her support is critical to each of the measures’ passage.

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First, there’s the infrastructure bill, which was passed on a bipartisan vote earlier in the year. Murphy’s wing of the party supports it, as do moderate Republicans. They’re less enthusiastic about a $3.5 reconciliation bill covering major parts of President Biden’s agenda that is supported by the party’s liberal wing. The two groups have said they’ll vote for the other measure only if it’s passed at the same time as the one they support – setting up a stand-off.

Then, there’s the debt ceiling, which must be raised by next month or the nation risks spiraling into a recession through a government shutdown. So far, Republicans have argued it shouldn’t be raised and spending should be reined in – even though they voted to suspend it entirely three times during the Trump era.

Finally, a defense spending bill is making its way through the process, backed by Murphy. Debate over the usually routine vote has grown more heated in recent years. Failure to pass it means military priorities will be put on hold.

Given her position as a dealmaker and power player, WFTV sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about the battles on Capitol Hill and their impacts back home.

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Editor’s note: questions have been edited for clarity and brevity. Rep. Murphy’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity. We’ve moved one question out of its original order.

Nick Papantonis, WFTV:

I’m going to ask you to help us out for a minute before we talk about anything too nitty gritty. For the viewers who don’t follow politics every day, how did we get to this point where whichever party is in power is trying to put everything into one huge bill, instead of breaking things up and having representatives vote on them individually?

Rep. Stephanie Murphy:

I’m as troubled as you are by it. I would have thought -- with very narrow margins for the majority in both the Senate and the House – that would have encouraged more bipartisan legislating rather than less.

I think it’s really unfortunate because we are supposed to be a deliberative body. We’re supposed to work with one another and try to find compromise and legislate from a place that takes in all the voices of our constituents across this country.

Whether it was the Republicans with their tax plan or what Democrats are trying to do now, the parliamentary tool they’re using to be able to pass things in a party-line basis almost feels like a lazy way to legislate, because it basically requires that all you have to do is negotiate with your own party. I don’t think that that was really the way that our founders intended for our democracy to work.

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Papantonis:

I’ll start with infrastructure and the reconciliation bill. You said that we can’t do it all, so what are you looking to include this time around? What do you think can be left out and taken up down the road?

Murphy:

The infrastructure bill is a critically important bill, especially for Orlando as fast as our area is growing. I’m really excited about what’s in the infrastructure bill that was negotiated in a bipartisan way and passed out of the Senate.

It has lots of provisions that will help us build our roads and our bridges. There are some good provisions in there to help grow or invest in electric vehicles as well as increasing access to broadband. There’s just so much good. That is in the bipartisan infrastructure plan.

Then, there are things that the Democratic party would like to do through reconciliation, which are investments into climate, as well as into American families by providing assistance in the areas of childcare and healthcare.

That bill is pretty large and the full text only recently came out, and we’re still waiting for assessments on how much things cost and whatnot. There’s a lot of good in that bill, but we just have to prioritize and find the most effective and efficient way to achieve the goals that we set out.

Papantonis:

How are the Democrats going to be working through this to get to a point where votes are taken?

Murphy:

I think the conversations will continue to be had between the House, the Senate and the White House as to how we move forward so that we can pass the already negotiated and defined infrastructure bill on Monday. Then, how do we continue to have conversations about what is in the Build Back Better plan -- or otherwise the reconciliation bill?

It’s good that the White House had the members over yesterday to have in-depth conversations, and really in honest begin the negotiations that are necessary for us to come up with a bill that works for American families.

Papantonis:

You are being attacked from both the right and the left on this. Do you think your 2022 chances could come down to how the next few weeks play out?

Murphy:

Being attacked from the left and the right is a fairly common thing for me because I represent a district that is evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independents. I feel like I have to be a representative for everyone no matter what their political stripe is, so it’s quite common to be attacked on both sides.

At the end of the day, I am focused on doing my job and doing it well. And being thorough about representing my constituents and politics will take care of itself.

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Papantonis:

I’ll move on to the debt ceiling. Its future in the Senate is not clear. Do you think politicians from both parties will be able to settle the differences and get this through at the last minute?

Murphy:

My hope is that we will address the debt ceiling in a bipartisan way as we did when Trump was president and as we have in prior administrations. What we are seeing right now is a little bit of Republican grandstanding. My hope is that they don’t actually carry out their threat to basically harm the US economy significantly by jeopardizing the fate of the US government. I think they need to do the responsible thing, work with us, as we have worked with them under Republican presidents to address that.

To be clear, the debt ceiling is not about current spending. It is about spending that has already occurred. It’s just saying that we can continue to pay down that debt. The spending that has already occurred is the responsibility of both parties, not just the party that is currently in power.

Papantonis:

Spending has been a concern on both sides. Once the pandemic is over, are there ways the government can cut spending in a smart way where we might not see these negotiations pop up every couple of years?

Murphy:

Yes, there’s a lot that we can do to put in fiscally responsible guardrails to the activities that we take moving forward. I think it’s really important that we try to address debt in a bipartisan way. It has been done in the past and there’s no reason why we can’t address that.

Today our spending is limited and should be prioritized. I think we should make investments in the things that give us the greatest return.

Papantonis:

What is the defense bill that you’re working on, and what makes it different than ones passed in prior years?

Murphy:

The NDAA is the National Defense Authorization Act, and we pass one each year. It’s part of my job as a member of the House Armed Services Committee to craft it. Tt basically provides the authorities around military spending and sets defense policy.

I am the vice chair of the intelligence in special operations committee, so I work a lot in that area -- making sure that we set the right policies and provide the necessary authorities to our special ops community. It’s also an opportunity for me to find ways to support the modeling and simulation industry that is specific to the Orlando area.

So, we are finishing up our work on it. This week, it’ll be up for a vote in front of the full House of Representatives. My expectation is that it will pass in a bipartisan way.

Papantonis:

You have all these concerns about spending and how we’re taking that on. We just wrapped up an expensive war as well. What is the argument for adding to the Defense Department’s budget this year?

Murphy:

I think there’s nothing more important than keeping the American people safe, especially at a time when our country is facing a complex array of threats from terrorist organizations to authoritarian countries like China, Russia, and Iran, and others.

We need to make sure that our military is equipped to meet the defense challenges of today and tomorrow. I think it’s really important for us to ensure that the Defense Department has the funding that it needs to keep us safe and keep our nation secure.

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Papantonis:

There are a number of provisions in there that involve the Orlando area. Can you talk about just a few of them, and especially how they might help our economy?

Murphy:

Our area is home to a number of military service members. We have pay raises in this bill. It provides a pay raise for members of the military and it strengthens parental leave for caregiving service members. So, it allows us to fulfill our responsibility to our servicemembers and their families.

The other thing that is unique to our area: Orlando is a hub for modeling and simulation. We are a world leader in modeling and simulation. As a co-chair of the Congressional Modeling and Simulation Caucus, I know that we can really use this thriving industry to help protect our country, but also grow our economy in the region.

We were able to include amendments in the NDAA that provide the Defense Department with $5 million to conduct a competition for small businesses in this particular sector. They’ll be awarded prizes for developing technology and tech solutions that address emerging national security challenges.

I think it’s a really great way to strengthen the modeling and simulation sector in Orlando and create opportunity for our businesses that operate in this area while also supporting our national security goals.

Papantonis:

A couple of broad questions to end this. Are we risking Washington becoming so polarized that the government can’t get its most basic functions done?

Murphy:

I think the way that we prevent Washington from becoming so polarized that it is dysfunctional is by making sure that we send people to Washington who are committed to working in the best interest of the country and in an apolitical way.

From the time that I’ve been in Congress, I am often named one of the most effective members, but also one of the most bipartisan. I always tell people that those two things go hand in hand. I am effective because I am bipartisan, because I operate and work for the interest of my constituents, my country and to my conscience. I don’t work for any particular political party. I’m here because my constituents sent me here, and I have to represent their diverse perspectives.

I think we need legislators who are more interested in the particulars of their jobs -- writing laws and policies -- than they are in social media and the partisan bickering that does happen.

Papantonis:

You think we can avoid it by electing the right people, but are we on that trajectory right now? Or are we heading down the path of more dysfunction?

Murphy:

I think we have to make some real reforms in how we do elections. Often, gerrymandering creates districts that are either deeply blue or deeply red. That often ends up resulting in candidates who are hyper partisan.

The more evenly drawn districts we have, the more balance we have, the more we’re able to elect people who have more centrist perspectives and who aren’t as partisan. There are are a lot of things that we can do to ensure that we continue to send people to Washington who want to work on behalf of all of their constituents, as opposed to grandstand for partisan purposes.

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Papantonis:

Is there anything working its way through Congress and flying under the radar that will benefit this area?

Murphy:

Well, the Build Back Better bill has quite a few climate change initiatives in that. I think it’s critically important that we address climate change.

In Florida, we are ground zero for climate change. It’s an existential threat to our state, but it’s also an economic opportunity for us to develop green technologies. I’m hopeful that either through the Build Back Better plan or other legislative vehicles, we’ll be able to make some progress on climate change and climate provisions that incentivize growth in the green economy.

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