Can they keep the US from the fiscal brink?
WASHINGTON (AP) – They are now among the most powerful women in Congress. But when they were first chosen in the 1990s, they were often overlooked, or even downplayed.
Rep. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, remembers men would avoid asking her questions and instead turn to other men in the room. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says a male colleague once challenged her at a hearing to describe a military tank engine produced in her district without looking at her notes. (She shot back: “I can bloody well do that!”)
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, says one of the first times she chaired a committee hearing, she looked around the room and realized she was the only female senator there. Late. Rep. Patty Murray, D-Wash., remembers sitting on the far edge of the committee floor, where the more senior men make the decisions in the middle.
“I remember finally just standing up at the end of the table and saying, ‘I’m sorry!’ Because you couldn’t get their attention,” says Murray. “Everything was decided in the middle of this table. I think it’s pretty amazing that we’re in mid-table now.”
This year, for the first time in history, the four heads of the two congressional expenditure committees are women. Granger is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, while DeLauro is the top Democrat; Murray is the Senate Appropriations Chairman and Collins is the top Republican.
Sitting down with the Associated Press Thursday for their first joint interview — and with Shalanda Young, the first black woman to lead the Office of Management and Budget and a former housekeeper — the women spoke like old friends, nodding and laughing in agreement as they listened to each other’s stories about how things used to be for women and sometimes still is.
Once elected, Collins says, men were automatically accepted when they got to Congress, but women still had to prove themselves. “The additional barrier that was certainly in place still exists to some degree, but far less than it used to,” Collins said. “Women come with different life experiences and different perspectives. And that is why it is important.”
The women said their camaraderie, friendship and willingness to work together will be essential as they take on the massive responsibility of keeping government running and open — an annual task that will be made even more difficult this year as conservatives in the new GOP House majority are insisting on major spending cuts and the United States is at risk of default. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., won his post only after accepting several demands from far-right members, creating a dynamic that could prove dangerous for negotiations as Congress must raise the debt ceiling in the coming months .
“This is a moment in time,” DeLauro says. “You’re really looking at five women in control of the most powerful levers of government.”
Still, she says, “none of us have our heads in the sand. We know there are difficulties that will be involved.”
Granger is in the most difficult position as she tries to balance the demands of the House GOP conference with her own responsibility to keep the government running. An important task ahead, she said, is explaining what grantees are doing to the public. Although the committees are rarely in the spotlight, they are the beating heart of Congress, writing the “must-pass” bills that keep the government running. Decisions about funding levels for almost everything the government pays for—from the military to health care to food security to federal highways—pass through the hands of trustees.
Asked about the upcoming challenge, Granger says “deadlines are very important” when communicating to the Republican convention. She said there will come a time when she will have to tell GOP colleagues, “This is where it has to be final.”
Another key to the negotiations will be Young, who is the former Democratic staff director for the House Appropriations Panel and has maintained a close relationship with all four women since becoming Cabinet-level OMB director for President Joe Biden. DeLauro and Granger threw her a baby shower before she gave birth to her daughter in 2021, she says, and “you can’t replace those relationships.”
Young’s relationship came in handy late last year as lawmakers worked to pass a massive $1.7 trillion spending bill that funded federal agencies through September and provided another significant round of military and economic aid to Ukraine. However, Granger signaled potential trouble ahead, and he did not sign off on the final bill when the GOP leadership balked.
Young joked that the four lawmakers probably wouldn’t have invited any other OMB director to do an interview with them. Murray agreed, saying she answers their calls and texts immediately, “and that’s new to me.”
The women were gathered in Murray’s office, an enviable spot on the west front of the Capitol with a blind view of the Washington Monument. It was once the domain of legendary appropriator Sen. Robert Byrd, DW.Va. Murray recalled when she walked into the same room just after she was elected in 1992 — the so-called “year of the woman” — she asked directly for a seat on the powerful spending panel.
As one of the only women in the Senate, Murray immediately won the coveted seat. But she found that she had to assert herself in what was still very much an old boys’ club. Thirty years later, she became chair of the panel, replacing outgoing Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. She also replaced Leahy as Senate pro tempore, a senior member of the majority who presides over the Senate and is third in line for the presidency.
Her Capitol office, says Murray, “has been inhabited by several men smoking cigars.”
Murray and Collins in particular have a long history together. In 2013, they were both key to efforts to end a government shutdown. And when they replaced Leahy and retiring Republican Sen. Richard Shelby as committee chairmen this year, they immediately issued a joint statement calling for a return to the regular process of passing individual spending bills “in a responsible and bipartisan manner” instead of to push them. all in one massive bill at the end of the year.
Collins said that no one on either side of the aisle, in either chamber, wants to fund the government again with a huge, end-of-year bill. “I really believe that we can make real progress by working closely together,” she said.
They all give credit to their female predecessors on the committees, including former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who was the first chair of the Senate Appropriations Panel and used to invite new senators to her office for what she called a “workshop” on the appropriations process , so that they could become more familiar with the detailed work of the committee.
In an interview, Mikulski, who retired in 2017 after 30 years in the Senate, says the women are “brilliant strategists” who may disagree on policy but won’t let anger come between them.
“What I’m excited about is that not only have they broken the glass ceiling, but they have the keys to the vault,” Mikulski says.