Barbara Mikulski, the Iron-Fisted Woman Who Helped Congress Find Common Ground

Senate leader manages to balance manners with momentum to get deals passed.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and others hold a news conference to highlight the impact of the federal government shutdown on on Oct. 2, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
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In December 2012, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., grabbed the gavel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, made history as the first woman chairman and then made a phone call.

Mikulski, without fanfare, television cameras or an entourage of staff, dialed up her Republican counterpart House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and informed him she was coming by to pay him a visit. A "small gesture of courtesy," Mikulski notes, but one running counter to the rigid traditions in Congress where senators don't wander to the House, the lower chamber comes to them.

"I went over to meet with him and his staff in their room and their territory," Mikulski remembers. It was a simple act of humility from the daughter of East Baltimore, a woman who has cultivated a reputation as an abrasive, no-nonsense member on Capitol Hill. The unanticipated gesture sent a message: she was serious about getting that appropriations bill drafted, passed and signed by the president.

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Nearly a year later when Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announced a budget deal and a spending cap on Dec. 18, 2013, one week before Christmas, the groundwork was laid, the relationships built and Mikulski was ready to put the appropriations staff into overdrive as they worked around the clock to finalize a 1,500 page, bipartisan bill in less than a month.

"She set the tone to reach out and make the appropriations work," says Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican in the Senate Appropriations Committee, who first began working alongside Mikulski when they both were serving in the House of Representatives. "She is very able, very intelligent. She is a worker. She is involved and we differ on a lot of issues, but she always makes sure we come together for what is good for America."

Monday, the "Dean of the Senate," as she is affectionately called by her 19 female Senate colleagues, announced a bipartisan appropriations bill, reminding Congress it doesn't have to remain the broken institution it has become. In less than a month, Mikulski managed to balance the competing requests of colleagues directing $1.1 trillion to be funneled into every federal agency from the Department of Homeland Security to the Pentagon.

Unlike some show horses in Congress who glamorize the appropriations process, Mikulski curtly describes the sausage making.

There are no "cute and funnies" she says about appropriating.

"This wasn't kind of fun and Kumbuya. This was hard work," Mikulski says of the long slog that required both Republicans and Democrats to make concessions on issues like health care and defense. "It was at times tense and it was always intense, but always courteous and civil."

Standing 4 feet 11 inches tall, Mikulski remains an authoritative force on Capitol Hill. A New York Times profile of her earlier this year noted while her contemporaries on the appropriations committee were respected and loved, Mikulski is feared.

She's the longest serving woman senator – and for that matter longest in Congress period. Mikulski was the first Democratic woman elected on her own merits and not for the purpose of filling a vacancy. She's a squeaky wheel, a rasping advocate, an impatient lawmaker with square shoulders and an aptitude for writing legislation and in the 1990s, two political thrillers. Colleagues who have served with her say she is a fierce representative of the old-school Senate she entered into in 1987, but armed with an obstinate belief in how to forge ahead in the changing institution she now helps to lead.

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Each night, she travels the 38 miles back to Baltimore, the city where she made her political start as a social worker, activist and city councilman.

"She identifies with the neighborhood and empathizes. It is a lost art," says former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "She is Maryland. She treats her constituents like a family."