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, 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 care for up to 10 million children, the Department of Health and Human Services has estimated.

Since 2015, when Ms. Murray took over as the top Democrat on the labor and health spending panel, and with Ms. DeLauro leading the appropriations subcommittee in the House, funding for child care and Head Start has increased by more than 250 percent, or $6.3 billion.

When she won re-election in 2022 and Mr. Biden called to congratulate her, Ms. Murray recalled in the interview, her response was: “Now we have to get child care done.”

In the recent spending bill, Democrats won the inclusion of $8.75 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the nation’s primary child care program for low-income families.

Separately, Ms. Murray secured $277 million in this year’s military construction funding bill to establish six new child development centers on installations to provide military families with more child care options — and added $60 million more than the Biden administration requested to design additional child development centers.

To comply with the strict spending limits dictated by in the debt agreement, a number of other programs — especially for the State Department and foreign aid, long a target of Republican criticism — absorbed spending cuts. It made it all the more important for Democratic leaders to claim a major win on a social policy issue important to their core supporters that could help entice their rank-and-file colleagues to vote to push the measure over the finish line in the face of substantial Republican opposition.

Democrats came into negotiations with greater leverage because House Republicans were never able to pass their version of the spending bill for education and health programs including child care. The measure collapsed after politically vulnerable Republicans balked at the deep spending cuts and anti-abortion measures their party had included, and amid a torrent of political pressure from Ms. DeLauro and other Democrats.

“Within our bills, you have to make decisions — a few here, a few there,” Ms. Murray said of the negotiations. But when it came to child care, “I just said, ‘This is something we’re not going to touch.’”

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the executive director of MomsRising, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington state, said the increase in funding was “desperately needed” — and that much more would be required to stabilize a child care system in crisis.

“This billion dollars translates into more child care for moms with families, allowing them to fully participate in the work force, greatly benefiting our communities and our economy,” Ms. Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “It also translates into stable, affordable, high quality child care, that lowers the overall cost burden that families are facing.”

Ms. Murray, she said, “has never shied away from embracing that she is a mom as a basic part of her résumé. That’s huge. She’s stepped into an area where there is a significant maternal wall, and she has succeeded. And as she’s succeeded, she’s lifted all other moms.”

Congressional leaders will soon begin negotiating the spending bills due this fall to fund the government next year. For Ms. Murray, the increases to child care funding secured this month are just the beginning.

“To me, this comes from my gut. I just fundamentally believe this is an issue we have to deal with,” Ms. Murray said. “I’m hoping that globally, with this appropriations bill, our country accepts that child care is something we have to focus on if we all want to be a better nation.”