WASHINGTON – Since the 1990s, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski has periodically organized dinners with the rest of the women in the Senate, no matter the party affiliation.
The women call these dinners their “zone of civility,” in which they talk about things ranging from their personal lives to political matters. Everything is off the record, their mantra being “no staff, no memos, and no leaks.”
During her farewell remarks Wednesday, which she called a “summing up” speech, Democrat Mikulski recalled the first time Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, reached out to work together. Both women’s staff responded negatively.
“‘Ew, she wants to work with you on something,’” Mikulski recalled her staff saying. “‘She’s a conservative from Texas and she wants to do something for women.’”
To which Mikulski responded, “How about if we listen?”
Thus began the first bipartisan, women-only dinner.
“The dinners have now stood the test of time, and I’m so proud of them,” Mikulski said. “That doesn’t go down in the law books, but it certainly, I think, should go down in the history books.”
Mikulski urged the remaining senators and House members – of both genders – to embrace bipartisanship and work together.
“We could actually work together, put our heads together, to try to come up with real solutions for real problems,” Mikulski said from behind her podium on the Senate floor. “The other is not just to judge one another because we have a party label. I’m so darn sick of that.”
After what is considered to be one of the most divisive elections in our nation’s history, Mikulski offered a warning.
“The fate of this country, and maybe even the world, lies in the hands of Congress and the United States Senate,” Mikulski said.
In his own remarks to the Senate about his departing colleague, Democratic Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois highlighted the “big difference” the dinners have made on the Senate floor.
“Senator Mikulski is…responsible for the brain child of making sure the women in the Senate became an even more powerful force,” Durbin said. “Her bipartisan, women-senators-only dinners were a rare display of bipartisanship in an institution too often divided.”
Although they got on amicably during the dinners, Mikulski assured the women they would never become a caucus because they were not uniform in the way they voted.
Throughout her 45 years in public service, Mikulski has been hailed as the ultimate champion for women.
“I wanted to help women get elected to the Senate,” Mikulski said. “One of the great joys has been working to help empower them.”
When she was first elected to the Senate in 1986, there was one other woman serving alongside her. Now, as she prepares to leave, there are 20 senators – with one more to be sworn in in January.
“Senator Mikulski has never been interested in simply being the first,” Durbin said. “She wants to be the first of many. And she has been.”