WASHINGTON — After decades of trying to amass power, several women have vaulted to the top of influential congressional committees, putting them in charge of some of the most consequential legislation being considered on Capitol Hill.
The $1.1 trillion spending plan Congress approved this week was the handiwork of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and her House counterpart, Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
In December, when lawmakers approved a budget deal with big majorities in both chambers, credit went to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Next month, when attention will turn to passing a farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who has spent three years working on the measure with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will be at the center of the action. Leaders and aides in both chambers expect the bill to pass.
And women’s influence extends beyond the marquee legislation to other policy areas.
Last year, seven women on the Senate Armed Services Committee took the lead on writing a historic plan to revamp how the military handles cases of sexual assault and rape. It was included in the annual Pentagon policy bill.
In coming weeks, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will begin a debate about reforming the National Security Agency, and her home-state colleague, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, negotiated a major water and public works bill last year.
Mikulski was quick to note the role that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, often plays in these very partisan times; Collins has been the key GOP power broker in tough negotiations between warring factions.
In recent months, while the country has been distracted by extended disagreements in Washington, led mostly by men, a cast of powerful female lawmakers has been amassing some notable victories.
This success is partly coincidence and partly the natural evolution of the old order. Seniority has produced a series of female chairmen of committees responsible for some of the most important, and often most controversial, legislation before Congress.
After last year’s historically unproductive session, 2014 has been devoted to completing difficult work left over, and there’s a feeling among many people that some corners of Congress are starting to function differently because of the power that women now hold.
Collins lauded the female senators for getting together frequently for informal dinners designed to provide space to talk about things other than work. But she said other important factors also are at play.
“One is the collaborative style that I think women as a whole . . . bring to legislating,” she said. “Second is that we’re in key positions and that allows us to shape legislation more directly. And third is that we do trust each other.”
Trust is a scarce commodity in the Capitol these days.
“It’s not surprising that every time I’ve passed a piece of legislation, I’ve had a strong Republican woman helping me across the aisle,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.. said in a recent interview. “Women are often very good at finding common ground and building bipartisan support.”
The achievements make Mikulski especially proud. She’s the longest-serving woman in the Senate and praises Republican and Democratic women in both chambers for bringing a different approach to negotiations that men have long dominated.
“While we work on the macro issues, we also work on macaroni-and-cheese issues,” she said.
Murray was more direct: “I think women, in general, across the country will tell you that a lot of them manage their own checkbooks and make decisions about their families. And that’s what women do here in the United States Senate now.”
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a freshman lawmaker and veteran of the Iraq war, noted that most of the women cutting deals were mentored through the years by older male colleagues — just like she was while serving in uniform.
“Maybe there’s something about the fact that they climbed the ranks against high odds that made them able to negotiate these tough bills,” Duckworth said.
In an interview, Mikulski recalled the first time she walked into a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She was the only woman assigned to the panel. “I was at the end of the table, I was at the bottom of the line, but when I walked into the Appropriations room — this beautiful room that is longer and wider than my house in Fells Point — I was awestruck by all that had gone on there,” the Baltimore native said.
She said the late senator Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a longtime appropriator, quickly took her under his wing and frequently reminded her of Congress’ constitutional responsibility to control the government’s spending habits.
“He taught me to love and understand the Constitution of the United States, to follow the rules, to obey the law and fight like hell for what you believe in,” she said.
On Wednesday, Rogers, the appropriations chairman, seemed especially pleased with the result of his work with Mikulski. “I can’t think of a more satisfying time that I have had in this chamber in all these years,” he said on the House floor.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised Mikulski on Thursday, saying, “I don’t know if anyone else could have done what she did working with the Republicans in the House.”
Stabenow suggested that women remember to play nice.
“It’s important to share credit with other people,” she said. “It’s important to worry less about who gets credit and more about getting things done.”
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who has led farm bill talks with Stabenow, Lucas and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said that having Stabenow in the room has made a difference. “I think she’s more tenacious, but more diplomatic than a guy,” he said.
Several female House Republicans are pushing for changes to the Affordable Care Act but haven’t found sufficient support in the Senate. Only one woman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has been directly engaged in long-stalled talks on immigration reform — the next big issue that many lawmakers are likely to tackle. And there’s no guarantee that Mikulski and Murray will be able to strike similar budget and appropriations deals later this year.
Collins urged them to keep reaching across the aisle — and not to forget about the men.
“We have many good male members of the Senate as well and I would not want to see an all-female Senate any more than I would want to see an all-male Senate,” she said. “I don’t think either would be healthy.”