Can they prevent the United States from being on the verge of a fiscal abyss?


This year, for the first time in history, all four leaders of the two congressional spending committees are women.

From left, Shalanda Young, the first black woman to lead the Office of Management and Budget; Senate Appropriations Committee Member, Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine; Senate Appropriations Committee Chair, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. ; and House Appropriations Chair, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, speak during an interview with The Associated Press on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. AP Photo/Manuel Balcé Ceneta

WASHINGTON (AP) — They are now among the most powerful women in Congress. But when they were first elected in the 1990s, they were often ignored, even looked down upon.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, recalls the men avoiding asking her questions, instead addressing the other men in the room. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says a male colleague once challenged her in a hearing to describe a military tank engine produced in her district without looking at her notes. (She shot back, “Damn, I can!”)

Senator 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- low. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., remembers sitting at the far end of the committee dais, with the older men making decisions in the middle.

“I remember finally getting up at the end of the table and saying, ‘Excuse me!’ Because you couldn’t get their attention,” Murray said. “It was all decided in the middle of that table. I think it’s pretty amazing that we’re in the middle of the table now.

This year, for the first time in history, all four leaders of the two congressional spending committees are women. Granger is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, while DeLauro is the top Democrat; Murray is Senate Appropriations Chair and Collins is the top Republican.

Sitting with The Associated Press on Thursday for their first joint interview — and joined by Shalanda Young, the first black woman to head the Office of Management and Budget and a former housekeeper — the women spoke like old friends, nodding head and laughing in agreement listening to other people’s stories of how things used to be for women, and sometimes still are.

When elected, Collins says, men were automatically accepted once they got to Congress, but women still had to prove themselves. “That extra barrier that was definitely in place still exists to some degree, but much less than before,” Collins said. “Women bring different life experiences and different perspectives. And that’s why it’s important.

The women said their camaraderie, friendship and willingness to work together will be crucial as they shoulder the enormous responsibility of keeping government running and open – an annual task that will be made even more difficult this year as the Conservatives in the New GOP House majority insists on deep spending cuts and the US is in danger of default. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, only got his job after accepting several demands from these far-right members, creating a momentum that could prove perilous for negotiations as Congress must raise the debt ceiling in the coming months.

“It’s a moment in time,” DeLauro says. “You are really looking at five women who control the most powerful levers of government.”

Yet, she says, “none of us have our heads in the sand. We know there are difficulties that are going to be involved.

Granger is in the trickiest position as she tries to balance the demands of the House GOP conference with her own responsibility to keep government going. An important task ahead of us, she said, is to explain what the spoilers are doing to the public. Although the committees are rarely in the spotlight, they are the beating heart of Congress, crafting “must-have” 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 and federal highways — pass through the hands of those responsible for appropriation.

Asked about the challenge ahead, Granger says “timelines are very important” when speaking to the Republican conference. She said there will come a time when she has to tell her GOP colleagues, “That’s when it’s final.”

Another key to the negotiations will be Young, who is the former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and has maintained a close relationship with the four women since becoming the 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 said, and “you can’t replace those relationships.”

Young’s connections came in handy late last year as lawmakers scrambled to pass a massive $1.7 trillion spending bill that funded federal agencies through September and provided another significant military and economic aid to Ukraine. Pointing to potential problems ahead, however, Granger did not approve the final bill as the GOP leadership balked.

Young joked that the four lawmakers probably wouldn’t have invited any other OMB directors to do an interview with them. Murray agreed, saying she answered their calls and texts immediately, “and that’s new to me.”

The women were gathered in Murray’s office, an enviable location on the west side of the Capitol with a commanding view of the Washington Monument. It was once the domain of the legendary appropriator, Senator Robert Byrd, DW.Va. Murray recalled when she walked into the same room just after her election in 1992 – the so-called ‘year of the woman’ – she outright asked to sit on the powerful spending panel.

As one of the only women in the Senate, Murray immediately won the coveted seat. But she found she needed to assert herself in what was still an old boys’ club. Thirty years later, she became panel chair, replacing outgoing Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. She also replaced Leahy as acting senator, a senior majority member who presides over the Senate and is third in line for president.

His Capitol office, says Murray, “has been inhabited by many men who smoke cigars.”

Murray and Collins, in particular, have a long history together. In 2013, they both played key roles in efforts to end the government shutdown. And as they replaced Leahy and retired Republican Senator Richard Shelby as committee leaders this year, they immediately issued a joint statement calling for a return to the regular process of passing individual spending bills.” responsibly and in a bipartisan way”, instead of pushing them aside. all in one massive bill at the end of the year.

Collins said no one on either side of the aisle, in either house, wanted to fund the government again with a huge end-of-year bill. “I really believe we can make real progress by working closely together,” she said.

All pay tribute to their committee predecessors, including former Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland who was the first chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and had a habit of inviting new senators to her office. for what she called a “workshop”. about the appropriations process so they can familiarize themselves with the elaborate workings of the committee.

In an interview, Mikulski, who retired in 2017 after 30 years in the Senate, said women are “brilliant strategists” who can disagree on politics but won’t let resentment creep in between them.

“What pleases me is that they have not only broken the glass ceiling, but have the keys to the vault,” says Mikulski.


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