WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats made history Thursday by selecting Washington state's Patty Murray to head the Veterans' Affairs Committee, marking the first time a woman will hold the influential post.
Murray, a fourth-term senator first elected in 1992, will replace Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii as the new committee chairman. Akaka, an 86-year-old veteran of World War II, has headed the committee for the last four years. Murray called him "someone who I will rely on heavily."
"Following in his footsteps is an amazing task, but I am ready to take this on, and I'm very excited," Murray said in an interview. She called it "an amazing journey for me."
Murray joined the Veterans' Affairs Committee in 1995, becoming the first woman named to the panel.
"I look at this as a passion for veterans, men and women alike," she said of her new assignment.
Murray will have another decision to face regarding committee assignments in two years. She's next in line to replace North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad as chair of the Senate Budget Committee. Conrad announced earlier this month that he will not run again in 2012.
Murray, 60, knows a thing or two about veterans from personal experience. She's the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran, who earned the Purple Heart as one of the first GIs to land on Okinawa and then returned home to Bothell to run a five-and-ten-cents shop.
And in the summer of 1972, as a 22-year-old student at Washington State University, she interned at the Seattle veterans hospital, where she was assigned to do physical rehabilitation in the psychiatric ward. Among her accomplishments in Congress: Murray helped keep VA facilities open in American Lake, Vancouver and Walla Walla after they had been targeted for closure. She helped win approval for new VA community-based health care clinics in the state. She introduced legislation to help more veterans with multiple sclerosis get care. She has worked to ensure that service personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries receive care, and she pushed for funding increases in veterans care.
Murray called her appointment, which was announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, "a great honor, but an even greater responsibility."
"I have a tremendous duty to the 22 million veterans across the country who have stepped up to serve our nation and who deserve the highest quality care, benefits, and treatment in return," she said. On Capitol Hill, Murray is regarded as a close ally of veterans, with her work winning honors from the Vietnam Veterans of America, American Ex-POWs, the VFW, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, among others.
She said far too many veterans "are sleeping on the streets after serving their country" and that too many are waiting far too long to receive benefits they've earned, including access to mental health care, worker training, and other resources to help them transition from soldiers to civilians.
Murray said she intends to make sure that the VA "is working for our veterans, not against them."
"Our service members should never have to come home from fighting a war only to fight to get the benefits and care that they deserve," she said.
The appointment increases Murray's already high profile on Capitol Hill. She's the Senate majority's conference secretary, making her the fourth highest-ranking Democrat, and she heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is working to recruit and fund candidates for the 2012 election. Roll Call, a Washington-based publication, this week called Murray one of five senators to watch closely in the new Congress, saying she will "influence the debate and drive caucus decisions" over the next two years. "Her dual roles put her at the nexus of every legislative and political decision the Senate majority will make in the 112th Congress," Roll Call reported.