Cokie & Steven V. Roberts:
The headline in the Washington Post read, “Moderates flex muscle.” Below that were pictures of 12 senators, six from each party, who are helping to forge a bipartisan compromise that would reopen the government and pay its bills. But the story never mentioned a key fact: Five of the 12 are women, three Republicans and two Democrats.
That’s no accident. The 20 female members of the Senate might be the last outpost of civility and sanity left on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who organized the group, told the New York Times: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate. Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.”
That’s true, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, made a good point on MSNBC: “If it were up to the women, this would be over already. There’s still a lot of testosterone going around.”
Even as the current stalemate reaches a conclusion, a new round of budget talks will start immediately. And it’s critical that female legislators from both parties stay involved and dilute the male hormones Cantwell describes. As Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, noted on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the women provide “a good model going forward” that restores and reinforces one of the most important words in the political lexicon: compromise.
Of course, not all women are pragmatists. Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, is a hardline conservative and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, is a doctrinaire liberal. And then there’s the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska who once ran for vice president and now seems increasingly detached from reality.
But in a capital choking on toxic levels of partisan hostility, the women senators have made a deliberate and determined effort to maintain communication across party lines. They meet about every six weeks for private dinners, and last Monday, amid the current kerfuffle, the two New Hampshire senators — Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte — co-hosted an emergency girls-only pizza party.
“We’re meeting, getting to know each other on a personal level,” Ayotte told MSNBC. “Certainly on Monday night, there was frustration on both sides of the aisle: ‘Let’s get this resolved for the American people.’”
Some of the women reflect the politics of their home regions, swing states like New Hampshire that oscillate in their voting habits. Republican senators like Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska come from states that also elected senators from other parties; so do Democrat senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
But let’s be honest. There are inherent gender differences. Women are better at working and playing with others. As Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, puts it, when women cooperate, “it’s much less about ego and more about problem-solving.”
Women also share life experiences that help shape their approach to politics. “We’re all used to balancing family budgets and dealing with children that are bullies and misbehave,” Stabenow told MSNBC. “And so sometimes that comes in handy.”
For most of our history women were virtually invisible on Capitol Hill. It’s stunning to realize that of the 44 women who have ever served in the Senate, almost half are there today. The first 13 female senators were appointed to replace their husbands, and the first woman to be elected on her own was Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who didn’t arrive until in 1978.
Since women comprise 53 percent of the electorate, 20 percent of the Senate is still a dismally low figure. Still, it represents real progress, a critical mass in terms of numbers and experience. Many are proven political players — Shaheen was New Hampshire’s governor, for example, while Ayotte was the state’s attorney general. So when the guys try to push them around, they know how to push back.
Then there’s the seniority system, which frustrated many women when they first came to Congress and is now their best friend. Seven women chair Senate committees, including some of the most important: Barbara Mikulski of Maryland on Appropriations, Patty Murray of Washington on Budget and Dianne Feinstein of California on Intelligence.
“The women are taking over,” cracked Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and while he didn’t seem all that thrilled at the prospect, the country would be better off if he were right. If the grownups manage to recapture Capitol Hill, if the forces of reasonableness are restored to power, many of them will be wearing skirts.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.