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03.04.12

How the Senate’s Women Maintain Bipartisanship and Civility

Congress’s approval ratings may be in the basement, but civility and bipartisanship among its female members is as strong as ever. Margaret Carlson on how the Senate’s women do it.

When Olympia Snowe announced she was leaving the Senate, her Republican colleagues were hopping mad. Her reasons—that the place had become a dysfunctional partisan hell—only elevated their anger. How dare she depart at a time when they might win a Republican majority in the Senate if they kept her seat?

How me, me, me, and male. Now let’s switch to Snowe’s female colleagues, both Democrat and Republican, who were sad to see her go. Snowe will leave a gaping hole in Washington, in their lives, and in the women’s supper club, a group of bipartisan Senators who meet monthly at one another’s houses or in the Strom Thurmond Room in the Capitol. (No, the irony is not lost on them that he was the avatar of the members who would rather pinch a woman than listen to her.)

The club is not a secret, but it is “no boys allowed” and less about conquering new territory than about finding a heightened quality of life as they seek to heighten their constituents’ quality of life. It wasn’t organized as a caucus around a subject, but to restore some of the natural camaraderie that existed before so many members left their families behind and spent every free moment of their nights and weekends fundraising.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski started the dinner group shortly after she arrived. “The other ladies call me Coach Barb. When a new woman is elected to the Senate—Republican or Democrat—I bring her in for my Senate Power Workshop and guide her on how to get started, how to get on the good committees for her state, and how to be an effective senator.”

And for a meal. Sen. Mary Landrieu lives just a few blocks from the office and serves New Orleans food with pecan pie for dessert. What the off-campus get-togethers do is foster the ability to handle the inevitable conflicts that arise. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, formerly a tough prosecutor for Minnesota’s largest county, may not agree with Sen. Lisa Murkowsi on everything. “But when we went on family vacation to Alaska,” she says, “Lisa had us over to her house.”

You can watch hours of lawmaking on C-SPAN and never see one female senator attack another.

The stories about cross-border friendships in the Capitol are as old as the spittoons that still dot the place—but the emphasis is on old. There was a day when Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had breakfast weekly with Republican Sen. George Aiken and when Tip O’Neill had an after-hours whisky with Richard Nixon. Now the only bipartisan friendships you hear about are between the women (there is a House counterpart to the Senate’s supper club), and both places are better for it. It is hard to picture Sen. Mitch McConnell taking freshman Sen. Mike Bennet under his wing, as Snowe did for Klobuchar, or tossing back a beer (or Kentucky bourbon) with Sen. Tom Harkin.

You can watch hours of lawmaking on C-SPAN and never see one female senator attack another. Nor do they do so behind closed doors. It’s not because women are “nicer” or the “weaker sex” that they don’t undermine, gobsmack, or betray one another even as they have reached the pinnacle of power where it is the coin of the realm. They simply got to know one another and, as a result, says Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, “resolve conflicts the way friends do.”

The list of issues the women work together on is a mile long and goes from children’s health to national security. But women can light on an issue men might think frivolous but, in fact, is anything but. One of the most liberal Democrats joined with the fiscally conservative Snowe after a few infamously long flight delays made the news. “Our constituents were getting stuck on aircraft hour after hour, stuck on the tarmac, with no food, kids screaming, nightmare scenarios, nine, 10 hours on the runway,” recalled Sen. Barbara Boxer, who, with Snowe, put together the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act. When a commuter plane went down in Buffalo, N.Y., the two got a new law passed that mandated sleep rules for pilots of small aircraft. They sent a joint letter to President Obama in 2009 to nominate a woman to replace retiring Justice David Souter, which he did in nominating now Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The complaint you always hear is that there just isn’t enough time for lawmakers to get to know their colleagues to create the civility that is in such short supply. Yet, a second X chromosome doesn’t give women another couple hours in the day. Women just carve out time for what they know is important.

It goes beyond dinner. When Hillary Clinton was a senator, she hosted the group’s baby shower for Hutchison. Klobuchar is in charge of games for the upcoming shower for Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who will now be separated from the other Maine twin with Snowe’s retirement. When Sen. Claire McCaskill collaborated on Second City’s “A Girl’s Guide to Washington Politics,” at the Woolly Mammoth theater in D.C., a dozen of the group found time to attend the opening.

If only the men could pick up on some of this, Congress might get above a 10 percent favorability rating in Americans’ eyes. The incivility that is driving Snowe out isn’t just atmospherics. It’s crippling the body. A dinner or two might help.