Ever since the first “Year of the Woman” in 1992 saw an increase in female lawmakers in Congress from 6 to 10 percent, the catchphrase has become an increasingly cliched way to describe the growth of women in politics. The moniker was attached to the 2010 boom in GOP women running for the House and then again to the 2012 election, which saw 11 women elected to the Senate.
But in 2014, it’s clear that the initial “Year of the Woman” was the most influential to date. And it has nothing to do with the number of victorious women: Only four female Senate candidates were elected that year and one re-elected, giving America a lower number of women there than it will see this fall.
What voters and the political elite could not have known 22 years ago was that two members of that historic class — Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland — would have the staying power and political savvy to attain Congress’ most valued and important asset: seniority.
The breakthrough candidates of yesteryear — Murray, then a self-ascribed “mom in tennis shoes,” and Mikulski, the lone incumbent victor from a then 2-percent-female chamber — have emerged as two of the most powerful and senior leaders in today’s Democrat-controlled Senate.
At the most difficult junctures of the past four years, Senate leaders have turned repeatedly to Murray and Mikulski to get Democrats out of political and policy pickles. And while much has been made of the influence of moderate Republican Senate women, who often provide swing votes for Democrats, little attention has been directed toward the two Democratic women wielding the Senate’s most powerful gavels. Without them there would be no deals for the GOP moderates to agree to. From their perches as chairs of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committees, Murray and Mikulski have effectively — but quietly — put a moratorium on the successive fiscal crises that dominated Washington between 2011 and 2013.
That makes Murray and Mikulski not just powerful female senators. That also makes them powerful U.S. senators, period.
“When you are making the decisions and you are controlling the debate around the dollars, that’s big. That’s what the milestone is here, in having these two women in the positions they currently hold and then to see where that takes them,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s what happens when you get enough women in and they start to have the tenure to move into these positions.”
Walsh noted that these two gavels were not over “traditional” committees women oversee, but over the money committees that decide where federal largesse is directed. “They’re breaking some of the stereotypes of where women land,” Walsh said.
Women now make up 20 percent of the Senate and 30 percent of the Democratic caucus. They have regular lunches, scheduled by Mikulski, the dean of Senate women and the longest-serving woman in Congress, and often team up on legislation. But as many observers have focused on the increasing number of women in Congress, their increase in power has often been overlooked. When now-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi became speaker in 2007, not a single newsweekly dedicated its covers to the Democrat’s ascension, even though two put Speaker John Boehner on the cover when the Republicans took over again in 2011.
The fruit of Mikulski and Murray’s work will be on full display this summer, as Mikulski’s Appropriations panel writes its spending bills, an annual process that had come to be viewed as impossible in the years before the Maryland Democrat ascended to the chair.
The story of how the Senate got here, and its new era of female leadership, starts in the fall of 2013, just before the federal government shutdown.
According to multiple sources, Mikulski, who took up the Appropriations gavel at the end of 2012, stood alone against her own leadership team that fall during budget negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wanted to push forward with another stopgap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, because he believed he had no other option. In an era when Republicans would not agree to any kind of new spending and when both parties were barreling toward a shutdown of the federal government, Reid did not think appropriations bills could be done. Mikulski, who assumed the chairmanship of the spending panel after two others more senior than her passed up the gavel, thought differently.
Mikulski was insistent that leaders embrace a strategy that would at least give them a chance to avert future fiscal standoffs while also re-empowering what once was the most unquestionably powerful committee in the Senate — and the one she now ran. She was willing to endure a shutdown to do it.
Many close to the situation said leaders were skeptical that the plan would succeed, or that any Democrat would be able to bring Republicans to the table either for top-line budget numbers or to approve regular appropriations bills for government agencies.
It turns out there wasn’t a Democrat who could do what had seemed improbable at best — there were two: Mikulski and Murray, who brokered a budget deal with House Budget Committee Chairman and former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in December 2013. This work period, the Senate is going through an appropriations process for its second straight fiscal year, with the panel approving its bills at the spending levels negotiated by Murray — and Reid promising to schedule final passage of the bills on the Senate floor as soon as July.
Mikulski "is determined, and she is tenacious and a more-than-adequate match for Sen. Reid,” said Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, who sits on the Appropriations panel and is a member of the Senate GOP leadership team. “The term she would use is ‘old school.’ Let’s do this the way that it worked for 200 years and produce a product that’s possible with the people who sent her to work on this. And she’s very good at that.”
The ranking member on Mikulski's committee, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, called her “steadfast” and “diligent.”
And a former senior Democratic aide described the Maryland Democrat this way: “She's something like a small dog grabbing your ankle every day, pushing to get things done.”
Multiple sources point to the approach Mikulski has taken with her Republican counterparts, Shelby and Kentucky's Hal Rogers, the House Appropriations chairman, as essential elements of her success. She’s seen as an honest broker and has taken the time to get to know both of them, the sources said. That’s a similar strategy to the one the women took with Ryan to craft the two-year budget framework.
“She just has the mentality I have,” Murray told Yahoo News in an interview. “I didn’t come back here just to throw political bombs. I came back here, as she did— and so forcefully does—to solve problems.”
For the past three years, Murray, the No. 4 Senate Democrat, has been Reid’s No. 1 designated problem solver — assuming some of the party’s toughest and least-rewarding assignments. In 2011, Reid made Murray the head of the “super committee,” a bipartisan panel created by that year’s budget deal to find more than $1 trillion in spending cuts. Many believed the committee was set up to fail, and it did, kicking in a commensurate level of mandatory across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. In 2012, Murray took the reins of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a job that was thankless and appeared hopeless. Belief that Democrats would lose their Senate majority was widespread, yet the re-election committee under her leadership helped Democrats retain their control over the chamber. And when Democrats needed an emissary to deal with Ryan after the 2013 budget shutdown to stop Congress from lurching from crisis to crisis, Murray again was the top choice to negotiate the budget agreement. The two lawmakers struck a two-year deal that set spending levels and garnered bipartisan support.
For all her accomplishments, Murray remains remarkably circumspect about the future. She won’t discuss whether she has the skills or ambition to run the Health, Labor, Education and Pensions committee, a gavel she’s likely to take next Congress. And she certainly won’t address the possibility that she might one day seek to be the leader of the Senate Democrats, even though she is the darkhorse favorite among some in-the-know operatives on Capitol Hill (other names often mentioned include Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois). She rarely even strays from talking points.
“I’ve never looked forward and said, ‘If I could just be ... then here’s what I’m going to do.’ I’ve looked at the opportunity that have been handed to me and said, ‘How does this fit with my goals as a United States senator?’” Murray said.
She admits there are times when she’s questioned how other Senate leaders have been thinking about or framing an issue — “Absolutely. Just about every day,” she notes — but she declined to give an example of a meeting where she stepped in and pushed her ideas over those of others.
“One that I can share?” she asked with a laugh. "OK, let me think. I often find that I get off the plane Monday having spent the week out in the state, come into a meeting about what we’re going to be doing, and I think to myself, ‘How is that relevant to what people actually want us to be talking about?’”
But others are not as modest about Murray’s abilities in such situations, or even about her potential in the leadership ranks.
“In all the leadership meetings I ever attended, Sen. Murray was always the voice of highest reason,” said a former senior Senate aide involved in the budget process and unaffiliated with Murray’s office. “She stays calm. She's got strong views, but she doesn't let them push her one way or another. She generally isn't the one who gets out in front — she lets the others do it — but you think about the fact that she was the one who Sen. Reid selected to do the first budget negotiations. It's clear that he trusts her.”
Regardless of what their own futures might hold, Murray and Mikulski are clearly blazing a trail for the future of women in the Senate, many of whom Murray personally recruited in her time at the DSCC.
The largest number of Democratic women in Senate history exists “in large part because of [Murray’s] efforts and her commitment to getting women in,” Walsh said. “Barbara Mikulski really does reach out to new women in the Senate and feels like it’s her responsibility to bring them along, and Patty Murray really went out of her way to identify and encourage and recruit women to run for the Senate,” she noted.
“When women are in and continue to move up,” Walsh said, “that in itself is the ticket.”