March 23, 2023

They are now among the most powerful women in Congress. But when they were first elected in the 1990s, they were often overlooked, or even talked down to.

Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas, remembers that men would avoid asking her questions, addressing other men in the room instead. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, 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: “Damn straight I can!”)

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, says that one of the first times she chaired a committee hearing, she looked around the room and realized she was the only female senator there. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, recalls being seated on the far edge of the committee dais, with the more senior men making the decisions in the middle.

“I remember finally just standing up at the end of the table going, ‘Excuse me!’ Because you couldn’t get their attention,” Murray says. “Everything was decided in the middle of this table. I think it’s pretty amazing that we’re at the middle of the table now.”

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

Sitting down with The Associated Press on Thursday for their first joint interview — and joined by Shalanda Young, the first Black woman to lead the Office of Management and Budget and a former House aide — the women talked like old friends, nodding and laughing in agreement when listening to each others’ stories about the way things used to be for women, and sometimes still are.

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

The women said their camaraderie, friendship and willingness to collaborate will be crucial as they shoulder the massive responsibility of keeping the government running and open — an annual task that will be made even harder this year as conservatives in the new GOP House majority are insisting on major spending cuts and the U.S. is at risk of default. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy won his post only after agreeing to several demands of those far-right members, creating a dynamic that could prove perilous for negotiations as Congress must raise the debt ceiling in the coming months.

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

Still, she says, “none of us have our head 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 the government running. One important task ahead, she said, is explaining what appropriators do to the public. While the committees are rarely in the spotlight, they are the beating heart of Congress, writing “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 safety to federal highways — pass through the hands of appropriators.

Asked about the challenge ahead, Granger says “deadlines are very important” when communicating to the Republican conference. She said there will come a time when she’ll have to tell GOP colleagues, “This is when 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 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 says, and “you cannot replace those relationships.”

Young’s relationships were helpful at the end of last year as lawmakers labored 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. Signaling potential troubles ahead, though, Granger did not sign off on the final bill as 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 is new for me.”

The women were gathered in Murray’s office, an enviable spot on the West front of the Capitol with a dead-on view of the Washington Monument. It was once the domain of legendary appropriator Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat. Murray recalled when she entered the same room just after she was elected in 1992 — the so-called “year of the woman” — she asked outright 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 chairwoman of the panel, replacing the retiring Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. She also replaced Leahy as the Senate pro tempore, a senior member of the majority who presides over the Senate and is third in line to the presidency.

Her Capitol office, Murray says, “has been inhabited by numerous men who smoke 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 as they replaced Leahy and retiring Republican Sen. 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 “in a responsible and bipartisan manner,” instead of shoving them all into one massive bill at the end of the year.

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

All of them give credit to their female predecessors on the committees, including former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who was the first chairwoman 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 they could become more familiar with the elaborate workings 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 rancor come between them.

“What I’m excited about is that they have not only broken the glass ceiling, but they have the keys to the vault,” Mikulski says.

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