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DC power players talk compromise and Hillary in 2016

March 26, 2014, 7:23 AM UTC
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) speaks at the Fortune Most Powerful Women dinner

FORTUNE — Tuesday night’s Fortune Most Powerful Women event in Washington, D.C., began with a moment of silence. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked that the audience remember victims of the landslide that brutally upended Washington’s Snohomish County on Saturday.

The natural disaster has already killed 14 citizens and 176 people are unaccounted for. Oso and Darrington, the towns impacted by the landslide, are tiny; Oso has only 180 residents. Murray said the devastation is unimaginable. Rescue and recovery will be a tough challenge for the Senator—and her constituents.

Another seemingly impossible challenge, though one far less fatal, that Murray talked about was overcoming the Hill’s rigid polarization last fall. She stepped across party lines and worked with Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to lock down a mini-budget agreement in December. Compromises were made on both ends, but the deal helped the government avoid another shutdown. (It will be readdressed in 2016.)

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The negotiations began with personal conversations. Murray bonded with Ryan about football, family, and fishing. Murray’s father had multiple sclerosis, forcing him into a wheelchair by the time she was 15, and Ryan’s father died when he was young. Murray and Ryan both like fishing, though Ryan baits sea creatures that Murray says she would never eat. And both are from big football states: Murray is proud to support the Seattle Seahawks, this year’s Super Bowl Champs, and Ryan is all about the Green Bay Packers.

“I have four brothers, I know how this works,” Murray told Fortune senior editor Nina Easton. Murray gave Ryan grief about the Packers’ disappointing performance, rubbing the Seahawks’ win-after-win in his face. She even went so far as getting Ryan a Russell Wilson jersey, signed by the Washington quarterback himself, a month before the Super Bowl.

That light-hearted focus on personality, rather than political philosophies, helped the liberal and the conservative find common ground. Murray said it helped build trust. Though the two met several times throughout this process, their conversations never ended up in the paper the next day. Both knew their best supporters wouldn’t be happy with the final result—Murray said announcing the deal was actually harder than creating it with Ryan—but some sort of action had to take place.

Michèle Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense in Policy and the night’s second speaker, has had her own troubles with compromise—though hers were of the personal nature. Flournoy left the Pentagon in 2011 because she felt her job was becoming too hard on her three children (at the time, her husband W. Scott Gould was the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs).

An example: The two parents had missed every single one of her 4th grade son’s school events that year. To make up for it, she promised she would attend a certain poetry recital and reserved the date on her calendar months in advance. The night before the recital, her boss scheduled a meeting on Iran for the next day—at the exact time as the poetry reading. Flournoy told her son she couldn’t make it, and he burst into tears. The guilt setting in, she explained the situation to her boss, who also has three kids. He happily reschedule and even sent her son a goody bag, loaded with the official White House M&Ms and a note that said, “Thank you for sharing your mommy with us.” The deed bought Flournoy another six months with her son, but she stepped down toward the end of the year.

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Flournoy’s name often floats into conversations about the first female Defense Secretary. Another first both Flournoy and Murray discussed was that of a female President of the United States. Will Hillary Clinton run in 2016? “I think she has a tremendous resume,” said Murray. “But I’m not from Las Vegas, so I don’t place bets.” Flournoy was a bit less elusive. “I certainly hope so,” she said, adding that her admiration for Clinton rose even higher after watching her as the Secretary of State. “The U.S. is ready for the other half of the population—for little girls to know they can dream of being president.”

The MPW event, which celebrated the 9th annual Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, ended on that aspirational note, perfectly aligning with the new Fortune conference announced by Fortune senior editor at large Pattie Sellers on Tuesday night. Fortune Most Powerful Women: Next Gen, happening December 2-3 in San Francisco, celebrates rising star women across all industries. Learn more here.

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