Progressive Capitol Hill duo has worked on family issues for nearly 30 years — and they aren’t done yet
When Rep. Rosa DeLauro first introduced legislation to expand the child tax credit 18 years ago, even her fellow Democrats dismissed it as a fringe idea.
“Like crazy aunts in the attic,” is how DeLauro described the way her colleagues looked at her in 2003, and nearly every year since then, as she re-introduced the measure over and over again.
But by the 2020 election, such progressive ideas had moved center stage in her party, and when President Joe Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress drafted the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, DeLauro’s patience ran out.
“I spent almost a weekend on the phone,” the Connecticut Democrat said in an interview with CNN in May, recounting how she spoke with various members of the White House, fighting to get her tax credit into the large legislative package.
“Enough,” DeLauro — now the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — recalled telling the White House.
“This is it. It’s now. It’s now our watch. Let’s go, let’s get this done,” she remembered saying.
It was added to the bill within 48 hours, which Congress passed in March.
The newly expanded child tax credit will provide financial relief to some 39 million households. Not only will the credits increase in value, but for the first time they’ll be fully tax refundable. Starting July 15, eligible families will receive payments each month — a change from the previous policy, which paid families only once a year. The administration estimates that nearly 90% of children in the country will be covered.
“It’s a New Deal,” DeLauro declared proudly. “It really is a lifeline to middle class families, as well as lifting over 50% of kids out of poverty.”
“It’s one of the most transformative pieces of legislation that we could have come by,” she added. “The years paid off.”
‘We got to move now’
Now, DeLauro is working with fellow veteran female lawmaker, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, to push other longtime progressive priorities like paid family leave and equal pay.
Murray — the chair of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee — said the pandemic “really exposed” the inequality she and DeLauro have spent their careers fighting against. In a year when many frontline workers were unable to work from home, and left without options for childcare, the disparities were exacerbated.
“Our frontline workers, women of color, people who’ve been put down forever — they clean your bathrooms and they are behind the scenes, but they’re raising kids and they’re part of our communities,” Murray said in the same interview with CNN.
Women have borne the brunt of the job loss; the newfound caregiving responsibilities drove many out of the workforce. Women had lost a net of more than 5.4 million jobs since February 2020, according to a National Women’s Law Center study published in January.
When the Washington State native first arrived in the Senate in 1993, the first issue she worked on was unpaid family leave.
“This is a great first step,” Murray recalled thinking at the time.
But now, nearly three decades later, she argues it is long past time to pass paid family leave.
“Women hold this stress right here,” Murray, clutching her chest, said about the fear many working women have if they don’t have childcare or paid sick leave. “Now we’re talking about it on a national stage,” she said — a relief for so many women, including these two lawmakers.
Despite the enormous impact they’ve had on moving the national narrative forward, both Democrats feel a sense of urgency now more than ever — with the House, Senate and the White House in Democratic hands and the 2022 midterms right around the corner.
“The window only opens for a short time in Washington, DC. So, we got to move and we got to move now,” DeLauro said.
Murray jumped in: “And I am not going to listen to anybody say to us, ‘Well, it’s a really good issue. Let’s fold it and run on it in the next campaign.’ I mean…” she said, stopping just short of rolling her eyes. “How many times have people said that to you about this issue?”
Murray took a beat to answer, pursing her lips with a knowing stare.
“More than you will ever know.”
Challenges of being a woman in Congress
When we sat down with DeLauro and Murray in a gilded House Appropriations Committee office inside the Capitol, the conversation was reminiscent of longtime friends reconnecting, picking up right where they left off. In fact, they hadn’t seen one another in more than a year.
The two talked openly about the challenges they still face as women — even finishing each other’s sentences talking about sexism.
“I was the only woman in the room so many times, and I could bring these issues up and no one would act with them. It would be, ‘Yeah. Right,'” Murray remembered.
After Murray won her seat during the “Year of the Woman” 1992 election, which ushered in a record number of female senators, there were only seven women in the Senate. The other 93 senators were men.
Now there are 24 female senators — far from parity — but, Murray said, enough to change the conversations about issues relating to family and female equity.
“Now you’ve got other people going, ‘Wait, this is an issue.’ Echoing you down the row in our committee hearings, in meetings. You’re not the only one saying that. They cannot ignore us,” the five-term senator said.
“It’s the same in the House,” DeLauro added.
While they agree that yes, having more women at the table is important, they make an important distinction.
“It’s not so much that our male colleagues are in great opposition,” DeLauro noted of the men’s attitude toward family equity.
“They didn’t talk about it before because they didn’t feel like it was manly,” Murray added, using her hands to put “manly” in air quotes.
These issues just didn’t naturally occur to most men.
“We’ve made it okay for them to talk about it,” said Murray as DeLauro nodded in agreement.
Despite each of them being high-profile committee chairs, and even with a female House speaker and newly elected female vice president, both women bluntly said that Congress is still very much a man’s world.
“This is still an institution where women have to work much harder,” DeLauro said. “You don’t get that many bites at the apple. When you get up to speak, you need to know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, my gosh, that’s so true,” Murray interjected. “Have you ever heard men speak to a Chamber of Commerce and talk about the weather?”
“They’ll say anything and it’s okay,” DeLauro added.
A cathartic moment to witness — two powerful female lawmakers, talking openly about the realities they faced — and still experience.
“I learned from women that you don’t take no for an answer, you don’t give up, and you make your voices heard. And that’s what keeps us together as well on these issues,” DeLauro said.
A study in patience
These veteran progressive women paved the way for the growing, younger social media savvy generation.
“How you pass legislation is the actual getting the votes,” DeLauro said about the 18 years it took to pass the child tax credit. It’s about negotiating, she said, the convincing, the give and the take. “That doesn’t happen on Twitter and it’s not instant.”
Both DeLauro and Murray said they try to gently guide and mentor their younger progressive colleagues.
“I think experience in knowing which levers to push at what time, and when to make an issue an issue is important. But you have to have both. You have to both experience, passion and that new (feeling of), ‘I’m here, I got to get something done.'”
Murray was elected to the Senate in 1992 as a “mom in tennis shoes,” an expression her opponents tried using as an attack until she embraced it as her campaign slogan. She held her tennis shoes proudly in the air during her victory speech on election night.
DeLauro started her career on Capitol Hill more than 40 years ago as chief of staff to former Sen. Chris Dodd, also of Connecticut. In 1990, she ran for a seat in the House. She forged a friendship early on in her career with now Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The two are still close friends.
Though their experience and persistence unite them, the legislative styles of Murray and DeLauro could not be more different.
Murray is a more of a quiet legislative tactician who famously forged a rare bipartisan budget agreement with former House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“She will throw the dynamite,” Murray said of her friend.
The dichotomy is visible. Murray sported a classic black suit and sensible sneakers during our interview, while her purple-haired colleague sat beside her in a bright patterned dress with a ring on nearly every finger.
“Two different styles, with the same goal, and the same determination,” DeLauro said.
Shared personal experiences
DeLauro vividly remembers the day her family was evicted from their home.
“We went home with my folks on a Friday night, and our furniture was out on the street.”
Her parents simply couldn’t make ends meet, she said.
It was that childhood trauma that propelled her to push to expand the child tax credit, which will only last through this year, but she intends to fight to make it permanent.
Murray had never heard that story from her friend. Despite working together for decades on family issues, they’d never shared their own childhood stories with each other.
“I was a teenager, and my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and of course my mom was a stay-at-home mom. She stayed home and took care of seven kids, and never thought she’d have to work, and my dad had to quit his job,” Murray shared.
The senator said her family turned to government assistance programs like Pell Grants and food stamps to make ends meet.
“So many people don’t recognize that terrible drop in your soul, when you are a child and something like this impacts you,” Murray said, locking eyes with her colleague. “Rosa, I’m so glad to hear that about you, because we come with that passion that — it happened to me, but I don’t want it to happen to anybody else.”
“It’s not the 30 years we’ve spent in this institution,” DeLauro said. “It’s your life’s experience. It’s the values from that life experience that move you to take up these efforts.”
“And make you into a fighter,” Murray added.