WASHINGTON — — Like other Democrats in Congress, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is battling Republican budget cuts and working to bring home federal money for her state. But as the 2012 election nears, Maryland's senior senator is also playing a role in national politics: helping to elect more women to Congress.
As the longest-serving woman in the chamber's history, the self-styled Dean of the Senate Women is poised to become a powerful messenger and fundraiser for female Democratic senators running for re-election across the country next year. Eighteen months before voters head to the polls, Mikulski is already in high demand.
Her efforts come at a challenging time for the Democratic Party, which will be forced to defend twice as many Senate seats as the GOP next year, just two years after losing control of the House of Representatives.
The number of women in Congress, meanwhile, fell this year for the first time in more than three decades — leaving advocates for women in politics anxious to recapture lost ground.
Mikulski's reaction: No problem.
"I'm going to organize the women into a SWAT team," said Mikulski, who won her own re-election last year to a fifth term representing Maryland in the Senate with 62 percent of the vote. "We're going to be like NATO: An attack on one will be an attack on all."
Mikulski traveled to Seattle in February to speak at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Sen. Maria Cantwell, a two-term Democrat from Washington who is up for re-election next year. In June, she will head to Michigan for Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Earlier this month she was the keynote speaker at an event organized by EMILY's List, a liberal Washington-based group that raises money for female candidates.
Because she has positioned herself as a leader on women's issues in Congress — and because she will not be on the ballot in Maryland again until 2016 —analysts say Mikulski could play a significant role in several states, including Missouri, Michigan and Washington, as candidates look to court women voters.
"She confers some degree of credibility to these candidates, but she can also tell a very real story," said Jennifer Lawless, who heads the Women and Politics Institute at American University. "Barbara Mikulski is in a position to help out this election because she doesn't have to worry about her own race."
Seventeen women, 12 Democrats and five Republicans, serve in the Senate. Seven of them, six Democrats and one Republican, are up for election next year. The incumbents include Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, among the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who was appointed and won a special election to serve out the last three years of Hillary Clinton's Senate term after Clinton became secretary of state in 2009.
"She always has a role," said Stabenow, who could be in for a fight herself this year if Republicans find a high-profile challenger. She said Mikulski, who grew up in East Baltimore and worked in her parents' grocery story as a high school student, connects with voters in Michigan.
"In Michigan, Senator Mikulski is viewed as a real champion of the American automobile industry and manufacturing," Stabenow said.
Decades of growth in the number of women in Congress came to a halt after last year's election. In the Senate, the number of women remained constant at 17. But in the House of Representatives, the number of female lawmakers fell by two to 88, or about 20 percent of the chamber.
The number of Republican women in the House increased by eight to 29, while the number of Democrats dropped by 10 to 59.
Because Democratic women in Congress still outnumber their Republican counterparts by more than 2 to 1, part of the decrease is simply a byproduct of the historic gains the GOP made in the 2010 election. Riding a wave of anger over the economy and Democratic policies, the GOP picked up 63 new seats in the House to recapture the majority.
Of 13 new senators elected last year only one, Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, is a woman.
Mikulski, 74, has gained national prominence by focusing on women's issues. The former social worker left her mark on the Democratic health care overhaul, adding language to require insurance companies to offer mammograms and other health services to women for free. She also championed legislation that makes it easier for women to sue employers for equal pay, which became the first act of Congress signed by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009.
More recently, Mikulski helped lead the opposition to GOP plans to strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Though the fight turned on abortion, Mikulski sidestepped that issue and instead focused on the other health services the organization provides, such as cancer screenings. Standing with female lawmakers at a news conference in April, she argued that the GOP would deprive thousands of women of access to health care. The funding ban eventually was dropped from the spending bill.
"We don't give up, and we don't give in," Mikulski said of the spending fight.
Mikulski is working to help Democratic women during a cycle in which, for the first time, two of the party's top political organizations are being led by women. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida is the first female leader of the Democratic National Committee in more than 15 years. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which works on behalf of the party's Senate candidates, is also run by a woman, Washington Sen. Patty Murray.
"We have a lot of women who are up," Murray said. "Many of them really look up to her."
Mikulski, who won her Senate seat in 1986 after serving for a decade in the House, became the first Democratic woman elected to the body in her own right — that is, no preceded by a husband or father.
The bipartisan, closed-door dinners of female senators she has organized with Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas have become a Washington institution. The dinners, along with her outreach to new members, have endeared her to colleagues, despite a reputation of being demanding and brusque with others. She is regularly included on
magazine's annual list of "meanest" senators.
"When you need her, she's always there," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a first-term Minnesota Democrat who is up for re-election next year. "She's been a great help to me. She goes out of her way to make sure that younger members are getting the help" they need.
But it is Mikulski's ability to raise campaign cash that may be especially attractive to some. During her election last year, Mikulski hauled in more than $6 million, despite early predictions that she would easily win re-election. In an interview, she said she would help Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, the state's other senator, in his 2012 re-election campaign.
But at this point, Cardin is considered safe, which allows Mikulski to direct her resources out of state.
Campaign reports show Mikulski used a political action committee to contribute more than $120,000 to other candidates in the last election. The majority of that money went to men — the majority of candidates are men — but she contributed to several high-profile women as well, including Robin Carnahan, who ran an unsuccessful Senate campaign in Missouri, and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who ultimately lost her seat.
Rep. Donna F. Edwards, the only other woman in Maryland's 10-member congressional delegation, didn't have Mikulski's support when she ran against incumbent Rep. Albert Wynn in the 2008 Democratic primary. But the two have campaigned together frequently since then, and Edwards said Mikulski's support has been key to her own success.
"She's been interested in the younger generation of women leaders," Edwards said. "Women members look up to Senator Mikulski."