Women are the Only Adults Left in Washington
Oct. 16, 2013
At one of the darkest moments of the government shutdown, with markets dipping and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue hurling icy recriminations, Maine Republican Susan Collins went to the Senate floor to do two things that none of her colleagues had yet attempted. She refrained from partisan blame and proposed a plan to end the crisis. “I ask my Democratic and Republican colleagues to come together,” Collins said on Oct. 8. “We can do it. We can legislate responsibly and in good faith.”
Senate Appropriations Committee chair Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, happened to be standing nearby, and she soon picked up a microphone and joined in. “Let’s get to it. Let’s get the job done,” she said. “I am willing to negotiate. I am willing to compromise.” Ten minutes later, a third Senator stood to speak. “I am pleased to stand with my friend from Maine, Senator Collins, as she has described a plan which I think is pretty reasonable,” said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. “I think it is pretty sensible.”
As with most anything that happens on C-SPAN, the burst of bipartisan vibes was meant to send a message. But behind the scenes, the wheels really were turning. Most of the Senate’s 20 women had gathered the previous night for pizza, salad and wine in the offices of New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. All the buzz that night was about Collins’ plan to reopen the government with some basic compromises. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, proposed adding the repeal of the unpopular medical-device tax. Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow suggested pulling revenue from her stalled farm bill. In policy terms, it was a potluck dinner.
In the hours that followed, those discussions attracted more Senators, including some men, and yielded a plan that would lead to genuine talks between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to end the shutdown. The pieces were all there: extending the debt ceiling and reopening the government with minor adjustments to the implementation of Obamacare. No one doubted the origin. “The women are an incredibly positive force because we like each other,” Klobuchar boasted to TIME as the negotiations continued. “We work together well, and we look for common ground.”
It’s quite an irony that the U.S. Senate was once known for having the worst vestiges of a private men’s club: unspoken rules, hidden alliances, off-hours socializing and an ethic based at least as much on personal relationships as merit to get things done. That Senate — a fraternal paradise that worked despite all its obvious shortcomings — is long gone. And now the only place the old boys’ network seems to function anymore is among the four Republicans and 16 Democrats who happen to be women.