WASHINGTON -- Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski stand poised to lead an "alliance for change" with the four newly elected women senators next year and become the first Democratic woman to rise into the all-male Senate leadership.
As the emerging "dean of women" in the Senate, the 56-year-old lawmaker said she wants to work with the four new Democratic women to become a cohesive force on economic, health care and family issues.
"There's no doubt they will look to [Ms. Mikulski] for leadership," said Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "It gives her a great deal of leverage."
Though the "Year of the Woman" gives her more visibility in the Senate, Ms. Mikulski was quick to note in an interview yesterday that she would have expanded her power next year anyway -- not only through her seniority but by her reputation and electoral success.
Running for her second term, she captured 71 percent of the vote against Republican challenger Alan L. Keyes, the highest ,, percentage of any Senate Democrat this year.
Ms. Mikulski acknowledged that she is widely expected to be named to a leadership post next month by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine. There is speculation that she will take the assistant floor leader's spot currently held by Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr., a Georgia Democrat defeated in a runoff election last month.
The former Baltimore social worker, who started her political career as a Fells Point neighborhood activist, would be the first woman in her party's Senate hierarchy.
The first woman in the Senate leadership was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who headed the Republican Conference from 1967 to her defeat in 1972.
Mrs. Smith also was the first woman to move from the House to the Senate. Barbara Mikulski was the second.
Besides continuing as a subcommittee chairwoman on the Appropriations Committee, Ms. Mikulski is slated to take over the Labor and Human Resources Committee's subcommittee on aging, where she plans to play a significant role in research at the National Institutes of Health.
Until the November election, Ms. Mikulski was the sole Democratic women in the Senate, serving with GOP Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas. Now, with the unprecedented increase in women senators, the Baltimore lawmaker will work with Senate leaders to insure that the women are represented on key committees. "I'm working to advocate their case," she said.
But the new women senators don't want to be seen as tokens for certain committees, she said.
"Their coming to the Senate is not to be a ladies auxiliary," she said, noting those new members want a crack at the main issue of the day: the economy.
As a result, she said, the women lawmakers are vying for spots on the Appropriations, Finance and Commerce committees, whose jurisdiction ranges from federal spending and tax laws to business regulation.
Ms. Mikulski also pointed to Senator-elect Dianne Feinstein of California as a possible candidate for the Senate Judiciary Committee, a male bastion whose members' grilling of Anita Hill in the televised Clarence Thomas hearings infuriated voters and spurred women to run for Congress, leading to "The Year of the Woman."
At the same time, Patty Murray, a senator-elect from Washington, is a possible choice for the ethics committee, said the Maryland senator.
The ethics panel this week mounted preliminary investigation into charges of sexual harassment against Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican accused of making advances toward 10 women who worked for or with him. Mr. Packwood initially denied the charges but recently he has declined to address specific incidents while saying he regretted any ill-feelings.
Ms. Mikulski was among the first to call for an ethics investigation of her Senate colleague, terming the charges "serious."
But the Maryland senator has parted ways with women's groups and others, who have also called for a similar probe of Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Mr. Inouye, who serves on the Appropriations Committee with Ms. Mikulski, was accused by his former hairstylist and nine unidentified women of unwanted sexual advances. He has denied the charges.
Ms. Mikulski drew a distinction between the Packwood and Inouye cases, saying the ethics committee should deal with those members "charged with anything in connection with his duties and also [if] it involves Senate employees."