“The Women Who Saved the Country” is one recent headline that has emerged following the government shutdown debacle that nearly tore apart the nation. The entire affair yielded one group of winners: the women of the U.S. Senate. Despite the extreme partisanship that plagued both chambers of Congress, a small, bipartisan coalition led by Senator Susan Collins came together to determine the best course of action for the nation. And they succeeded. They prevented total chaos: we did not default, federal government employees were able to return to work, and national parks reopened. Crisis was averted. As we look forward to the potential of another shutdown in January 2014, many are left wondering: what was the secret to their success?
The old habits of Washington’s political elite often are discussed with an air of nostalgia. Some today long for the days when members would fight bitterly for their causes on the floor and then leave their chambers to speak with those on the other side of the aisle. In the late-1990s, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Kay Bailey Hutchison recognized the potential to develop trust and respect among their small group of women colleagues. Thus began their legendary monthly dinner series. At BPC’s “Women as Leaders Forum” on Tuesday, Senator Snowe reflected on the dinners, reminiscing about the opportunities to speak in confidence with other women about nearly anything. Over time, the group, which now welcomes twenty female Senators, has done more than just foster conversation and friendship; it has enabled women of diverse political affiliations to develop a listening ear and bond over comparable challenges and difficulties associated with their gender and career choice.
As former Senator Blanche Lincoln remarked at BPC’s event, “there just aren’t opportunities to get to know your colleagues like you used to have.” The formation of personal relationships allowed previous Congresses to compromise on landmark legislation because they had developed respect for one another, even when they disagreed politically. The personal respect has diminished as members rarely, if ever, make the effort to mingle with members of the opposite party. Nevertheless, the women of the U.S. Senate are persevering in their tradition of interacting past the work day and are setting a strong example for other women. These twenty women are of varying political parties and ideologies, but they are able to set aside their differences to work towards practical change because they actually hold each other in high esteem for reasons that extend far beyond party affiliation. Perhaps all of Congress should emulate this behavior – our nation would be better for it.
The Women as Leaders forum was an event organized by BPC’s Commission on Political Reform, which works to understand the causes and consequences of America’s partisan political divide and to advocate for specific electoral and congressional reforms to help Americans achieve shared national goals.