High-powered girl talk


"Tucked away on a quiet street a block from the Senate offices sits the Monocle, the quintessential Capital Hill restaurant.

"Tonight, up a red-carpeted flight of stairs, in a private dining room, the table is set for nine."

With this familiar description of a secluded Washington power dinner, writer Catherine Whitney begins to tell the stories of nine of the most powerful people in this country - the nine women of the U.S. Senate.

"Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate" (William Morrow & Co., $25) tells the stories and the political lessons of Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, Patty Murray of Washington, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Maryland's own Barbara Mikulski.

Single, widowed or married with young children, these women are from the first generation of women senators who were elected in their own right, not to fill out the terms of husbands who had died in office.

They are Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. They represent states large and small on the East and West coasts. Some were born into politics, others were provoked and frustrated until they decided to take the reins of power themselves.

The fact that they are women, and that each endured much disrespect on the path to the Senate, might be all they have in common.

Recognizing that, they meet every few weeks for dinner and for informal conversation that touches on the personal and the political.

"We have just three rules," Mikulski said yesterday. "No staff. No memos. No leaks."

No memos, maybe. But a book? Yes. "Nine and Counting" hits bookstores today, with the release kicked off with a formal reception for the women senators on Capitol Hill. All royalties will benefit the Girls Scouts of America, to whom the book is dedicated.

Mikulski, her voice raspy with the cold that has resulted from "Thanksgiving in July," as she described Maryland weather, talked about the result of this special coalition with The Sun yesterday:

The thumbnail descriptions of the women senators in the book have one thing in common. These women are always referred to as "consensus builders" and "coalition builders." Is that who women are, or is that what it takes to be a U.S. senator?

After the election of 1996, there was a real concern about what would happen to civility in the Congress. I called up Kay and said, "You know, civility has to begin with us. With Mary and Sue coming in, let's get together for a power coffee."

We had a great time that day, a wonderful time. We decided that if the women could be civil with each other, we could set the example. That's when we hit on the idea of getting together once a month. We got together as women do. Over life, times, the job, issues, but it is really relaxed.

Women know that in order to be effective, you have to be a coalition builder and these women are determined to be effective. You can be a show horse or a work horse. We decided to work.

Can you imagine the male justices of the Supreme Court giving an informal dinner for male senators, as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O'Connor did for the nine women senators?

Men do it with sports and the gym. They go to baseball games and bond over beers. They go to the gym and shoot a few hoops. They share a steam bath. Women don't do steam.

Seriously, we wanted to reach out [to the women justices] because each of us is a first: the first woman. A lot of joy comes with that, but with it a lot of responsibility. We wanted an evening with them around that kind of conversation. (Following that dinner, the women justices reciprocated.)

You know, whether you are a senator, a congressman or a Supreme Court justice, women of America write to us as if we are their at-large representatives. The letters are very personal. The women justices have had letters asking about how they can get help enforcing a child-support order. Women think we can help.

Can a woman senator accomplish more than a woman vice president? Are you disappointed that there are no women under consideration for that job this election season?

They are different roles with different responsibilities. When you are one of 100, you can meet a lot of the day-to-day needs of your constituents as well as think about the future of the country. The vice president has a different set of responsibilities.

But the answer is yes. Both parties are missing the boat this year because there are many qualified women, women who should have been considered for vice president.

Do you see the profile of the woman senator changing from that of someone like yourself, who is essentially wedded to the job, to someone like Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln, who are, though somewhat atypical, working mothers?

I think we are going to see women from the broad array of people. Mary and Blanche are amazing and they show many young women what you can do in politics.

Other women are going to come to the Senate from distinguished careers in business or politics or academia. Some of us are still going to be older, single or widowed.

Are you hoping Oprah will select "Nine and Counting" for her book club? Could you all make it to Chicago for the show?

If we show up together every day for the Senate, we can show up for Oprah. And I think we'd make a great show.

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