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March 29, 2024

Murphy delves into compromise and conflict in interview

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Sen. Chris Murphy answers a question from CT Mirror Director of Events John Dankosky during an "In the Room" event.

In an hour-long interview Wednesday night, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., delved into his emerging role as a negotiator and the thorny debate over compromise and bipartisanship at a time when Congress is riddled with dysfunction.

It was a consistent theme throughout the interview, which kicked off The Connecticut Mirror’s “In the Room” series with host John Dankosky. The discussion was amplified by the sudden death of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman who had a sharp independent streak that frustrated many within his party.

As the successor to Lieberman who won his first election to the Senate in 2012, Murphy was asked to opine on a newer generation of voters who have a negative connotation of compromise and are frustrated by incremental progress because of concessions made to achieve bipartisan deals.

Murphy has played a more central role in negotiations over the past few years, most notably on securing some wins for the gun safety movement and recently trying to get Congress to tackle the long-elusive issue of immigration.

“I know today, especially with online politics dominating our conversation, compromise feels weak,” Murphy said during the interview at The Mark Twain House in Hartford. “But I don’t know how America survives if democracy isn’t the place where we all seek to find that common agreement on the really big tough stuff.”

Murphy argued that there needs to be a balance of working with lawmakers to find common ground on certain issues while also turning to voting when those political and policy differences are insurmountable.

“I think there are moments where you need to put down your swords and try to find a compromise. I think there are some irreconcilable differences in which the ballot box is your only means of redress,” he said. “I don’t think it’s either-or. I think you have to be doing both.”

“My job is to forge compromise with people I disagree with,” he continued. “I can choose to decide that everybody who doesn’t share my views on abortion or climate is not worth working with on anything, but that would be a recipe for disaster.”

Lieberman and his political legacy was a frequent topic throughout the interview. Dankosky noted that “you and Joe Lieberman have an awful lot in common” in terms of Murphy growing into this newer role of negotiator.

But Murphy, who is running for a third term in November, pushed back, saying he is not at the negotiating table as a “fence-sitting moderate,” seeking to make the distinction that he is a self-proclaimed “progressive Democrat.”

Questions about Middle East politics and the Israel-Gaza conflict dovetailed with the discussion about taking more middle-of-the-road positions at times.

Like he has in previous interviews and statements, Murphy said he cannot defend the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and believes Hamas must be defeated, while also calling for a temporary “negotiated cessation of hostilities” to release the remaining hostages and get more aid into Gaza.

A few weeks into Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza, Murphy called for a “humanitarian pause” along with much of Connecticut’s congressional delegation at the time. He also joined other Senate Democrats in pushing for the Biden administration to significantly increase ways to get humanitarian aid into Gaza.

But Murphy and other Democrats have been criticized by progressives within their party, arguing that those actions are not enough and calling for a lasting ceasefire.

His answers were periodically interrupted by audience members, at one point pressing him to call the humanitarian crisis in Gaza a genocide. Four people wearing keffiyehs who were sitting in the back row held up signs asking, “why do your kids deserve food more than the kids in Gaza?”

Murphy has previously been confronted about his positions on the war. The Connecticut chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America protested in support of a ceasefire outside of his fundraiser in Avon in December. Murphy has also been called out for questioning Israel’s military campaign, including in a letter from a West Hartford rabbi last year.

As he straddles both sides of a fraught debate, Murphy acknowledged that he “does not occupy a convenient position.”

“The opinions of folks in the state really matter in an issue like this, where I’m not going to satisfy everybody. You just in the end try to do what you think is right,” he said.

When asked if he has ever changed his mind on an issue during his career, Murphy said his most recent one was on the Israel-Gaza conflict.

“I did believe for the early days Israel had to continue to conduct those operations and that the most important thing was defeating Hamas, and I have come to the conclusion that Israel needs to pause military operations because the scope of the humanitarian disaster is so big,” he said.

On domestic issues, he gave a more detailed look into his involvement in bipartisan negotiations surrounding the success of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the efforts — and ultimate collapse — of a border deal.

When he transitioned from the House to the Senate in 2013, Murphy said he needed to build up relationships with senators first before he could become a bigger stakeholder in negotiations during his second term.

Murphy said he remains frustrated that former President Donald Trump’s political operation “lit that bill on fire” and Republicans who privately and publicly indicated their support essentially killed the legislation. But he quickly pivoted to why lawmakers need to move on if they want to see success in other areas of policy.

“I still have to live to fight another day, because — what if those same Republicans are willing to sit in a room with me a year from now to pass the next version of gun safety legislation?” Murphy said. “You have to get over heartbreak pretty quickly, because your job is not to feel personally aggrieved by the way that people vote.”

That response circled back to a premise at the top of the interview — Murphy’s relentless optimism of the government at a time when Congress is at its least productive and gripped by partisan gridlock that has worsened in recent years.

But Murphy would not budge when presented with the notion by Dankosky about how Congress can still work and function “despite all evidence to the contrary.”

“I don’t believe that’s true. I believe the evidence backs up my claim that this project can still work,” Murphy said, ticking through passage of an infrastructure bill, climate change investments, expanded veterans benefits and pandemic relief.

“Maybe I have too much patience,” he conceded later, “but I still believe that if you can repeat what we did on guns on immigration and climate, that we can be equally successful.”

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