Washington Sen. Patty Murray was sworn in Tuesday as Senate president pro tempore, becoming the first woman in the country's history to hold that role.
In the process Murray immediately, and temporarily, became the second person in line for the presidency.
The Senate president pro tem position is typically third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and the House speaker. But there currently is no House speaker.
Three times on Tuesday, in votes stretching over most of the day, Republicans, who hold the House majority, tried and failed to elect a speaker. With House Democrats united in support of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, House Republicans were unable, ballot after ballot, to muster a majority for their leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, of California. Each time, 19 or 20 GOP members chose an alternate candidate, depriving McCarthy of a majority.
So, for the time being, Murray is second in line, by default.
Murray, 72, a Democrat recently elected to a sixth term, will also chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee in the newly begun 118th Congress, putting her in a key position to direct billions of dollars of federal spending.
"I do feel the weight of the responsibility," Murray said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I don't think our country wants to see chaos right now. I think they really want us to work together and make sure we're funding the priorities and passing the policies that really help everyday average people."
She said her reference to "chaos" wasn't specifically to House Republicans' inability to choose a leader, but about "the last six years."
The Trump administration, she said, was chaotic. So was Jan. 6. So is what's going on in the House.
"People just want our country to work," Murray said. "They want to go to their job, to send their kids to school, to live in their communities, to play soccer on Saturdays and not worry about what's happening in the nation's capital."
Among other things, Murray also now becomes a member of a very select group of women: She is now tied with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, trailing only Vice President Kamala Harris, as the second-closest a woman has been to the presidency, in the line of succession. When the House does elect a speaker, Murray will drop back to third in line.
"It's not lost on me the significance of what it means to be the first woman to serve in this role," Murray said. "This is another sign that slowly but surely, Congress is looking more like America."
Murray, who took the oath of office in her near-signature tennis shoes, harked back to her earliest Senate campaign, when she took a derisive comment from a male colleague — "just a mom in tennis shoes" — and turned it into a slogan that's lasted decades.
"I did it because somebody said you can't do it," she said. "And I hope that what I've achieved today will help young girls everywhere say, 'Don't let anybody tell you you can't make a difference.' "
The Senate president pro tem is usually the longest-serving senator from the majority party. The president pro tem presides over the Senate in the vice president's absence, and can administer Senate oaths of office, sign legislation and preside, with the House speaker, over joint sessions of Congress.
Murray, as she begins her 31st year in the Senate, is now the second-most-senior female senator in history, trailing only her Democratic colleague California Sen. Dianne Feinstein by two months. Feinstein said last year she wasn't interested in the president pro tem position.
"There is no one I trust more to be third in the line for presidential succession than Sen. Murray," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said in a floor speech Tuesday. "She is brilliant, pragmatic and knows how to get things done."
As Appropriations chair, Murray will oversee virtually all federal spending, with great power to steer funding toward projects of her choosing.
Her priorities, she said, will include Washington-specific topics like funding to fight wildfires and support salmon recovery, as well as national Democratic priorities like expanding access to child care and affordable housing.
She touted the 30% increase to a federal child care block grant program that was included in the massive year-end spending bill that passed last month.
Murray campaigned heavily in the fall on protecting reproductive rights. With Republicans having a majority in the House, there almost certainly won't be substantial progress on that. She said she would try to work on the margins, fighting defensively to protect abortion rights and pushing legislation for things like codifying protections for in vitro fertilization.
After the recent passage of the $1.7 trillion spending bill, with funding for nearly every aspect of government, Murray said she didn't yet have specific Washington projects in mind that she wants to steer dollars toward. She said she and her staff would spend time talking to communities to hear their priorities.
And she expressed hope, if not overwhelming optimism, about working with a Republican-led House in a split Congress.
"Every Congress is different, and it really depends on the people that are elected in that Congress," she said. "I have always found, throughout my career, that there are Republicans and Democrats who are willing to work together to achieve goals."