Every other month, one of the most exclusive clubs in Washington gathers for dinner. Even at a time of increasing partisanship, the group includes both Democrats and Republicans. And in an era of ever-diminishing secrecy, there is a virtual cone of public silence over what transpires at the table.
"There are three rules," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, one of the organizers of the dinners. "No staff, no memos, no leaks."
She could have added: No Y- chromosomes, either.
That there can even be a decent-size dinner party made up of just the female members of the Senate is testament to how much has changed since Mikulski joined in 1987, when a table for two would have sufficed.
Now there are 17. And on Wednesday, when Mikulski is sworn in for her fifth term, the Maryland Democrat becomes the longest-serving woman in Senate history.
Through the years Mikulski — the first female Democrat to be elected to the Senate in her own right — has styled herself "the dean of the Senate women." It's an unofficial title, but one that has shaped her role in the Capitol and provided her with a network beyond her own party.
"She's a great mentor to all of us," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican. "She's a powerhouse. She knows how to get things done."
Snowe said she goes "way back" with Mikulski, to the 1970s when both served in the House of Representatives, and she will be among those speaking on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday when a resolution honoring the Maryland senator is to be introduced.
Snowe likens her friend to the "legend" from her own state, Margaret Chase Smith — whose 24 years in the Senate Mikulski will surpass — calling both women hard workers devoted to their constituents back home.
Despite her decades of working in Washington, the 74-year-old Mikulski hasn't moved there, preferring to remain in her hometown and commute. Her office in Baltimore is in Fells Point, not far from where she grew up a grocer's daughter in Highlandtown. "Now it's called Brewer's Hill," she said, wryly.
"She's very much a part of Baltimore," said former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a close friend. "People identify with her, I think. They see her as a fighter. They appreciate that.
"She reacts very strongly to unfairness and inequity," Sarbanes said, citing in particular Mikulski's work in increasing access to Medicaid. "She gets hold of something and just stays with it in a very persistent and dedicated way."
In a city of long memories, she probably will always be linked to the cause that first brought local fame to the feisty social worker and eventually led to a political career: opposition to a proposed 16-lane highway that would have cut through East Baltimore.
"Nowadays, when you go east across Baltimore, from Harbor East to Fells Point to Canton, and you see all that development and all the residential communities — that would have been a highway going across there," Sarbanes said.
After helping to block the highway, Mikulski won a seat on the Baltimore City Council in 1971, and after losing a race for Senate in 1974 was elected two years later to the House.
She has since become part of a political lineage that has proved remarkably stable over the years. Her House seat was held previously by Sarbanes, and when she joined him in the Senate, she was succeeded by Benjamin L. Cardin. When Sarbanes retired, Cardin won his Senate seat. (And Sarbanes' son, John, won the congressional seat that his father, Mikulski and Cardin had each held.)
She served on the City Council when William Donald Schaefer was mayor, and counts among her former campaign and office staffers Martin O'Malley, now governor, who issued a statement this week congratulating her on the Senate milestone and lauding "her advocacy and steadfast commitment to Maryland's families."
But that kind of clubbiness has also drawn detractors. Even as Mikulski remains one of the state's most popular politicians, winning each of her Senate re-election races with at least 60 percent of the vote, her last opponent says she epitomizes business as usual in Washington.
"I don't think [Marylanders] have been well served by her," said Eric Wargotz, the former president of the Queen Anne's County Commission, who lost to Mikulski in November. During the campaign, he portrayed her as an entrenched Democrat too willing to increase taxes and government spending — an argument that failed in his race, even as it proved successful elsewhere in the country.
"People are accustomed to her being there. They're comfortable with her name identification — her name identification is 100 percent, or 95 percent," Wargotz said with a laugh. "And it's hard for folks to pull the other lever."
Even as she prepares for her fifth term in the Senate, Mikulski remembers what it was like being new — and being one of just two women there at the time, with Republican Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas.
They became good friends. Mikulski says that she and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts were the only Democrats invited to Kassebaum's wedding to former Sen. Howard Baker in 1996. The foursome took to the floor for the " Tennessee Waltz," in honor of the groom's home state.
"That was quite a dance," she says with a laugh.
Having been mentored by Kennedy, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Paul Sarbanes, Mikulski now is known for doing the same for those who have come after her, especially the women.
One of those is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
"When I was first elected in 1993, I looked to Barbara as a friend and mentor, and I continue to value her wisdom and experience today," the Texas Republican said. "I know all of the women who have come to serve in the Senate have greatly appreciated her guidance."
While Mikulski has something of a cantankerous reputation on Capitol Hill — she turns up repeatedly on the list of "mean" senators in Washingtonian magazine's annual survey of congressional staffers — fellow lawmakers such as Boxer say she is a caring and funny colleague.
"She has such a great sense of humor," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and another compatriot from their days as congresswomen.
"I remember once, when we decided to integrate the House gym — Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Kennelly, Olympia Snowe, Barbara Mikulski, those are the ones I remember were there," Boxer said. Boxer brought in a friend to lead the female lawmakers in an exercise program in what had been a male bastion.
"She says, 'OK, everybody, hands on your hips.' And Barbara says, 'If I had hips, I wouldn't be here.' She cracked us all up."
Mikulski's longevity in office hasn't translated into the kind of leadership positions that would have given her a higher national profile. She is the longest-serving member of the Democratic majority who hasn't chaired a full committee.
Mikulski says she focuses on how she can best serve Marylanders. In the last Congress, she chaired the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and other agencies that have a substantial presence in the state, and the health, education, labor and pensions subcommittee on retirement and aging.
"She's very, very effective because she's on appropriations," Boxer said. "She has a bigger role as the senior woman that she is wonderful at using. Her power lies in her ability to organize."
Mikulski has worked with other female lawmakers on so-called women's issues — although she says all issues really are women's issues, whether they deal with health care or the economy or national security. She has worked, for example, to require medical trials to include women, and she pushed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act through the Senate, extending the amount of time in which workers can file wage discrimination cases. That was the first law signed by President Barack Obama after he took office, with a pen that she now displays in her office in Washington.
The Congress into which Mikulski will be sworn on Wednesday will be very different from the one that preceded it. With the Republican victories in November, the GOP has taken over the majority of the House and cut the Democrats' edge in the Senate.
But it was out of another Republican wave, in 1994, that the female senators of both parties first started meeting regularly for dinner.
"It got very prickly," she said of the tenor in Washington. "Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and I talked over things, and we said there has to be a zone of civility. If it can't start with the women …"
They began having dinner once a month, though now it's every other month. Even as their ranks grow, the Senate women still are quite a minority, especially when you take the long view: Over the course of the Senate's 223-year history, there have only been 38 female members. And the first, Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia, appointed for political reasons and to fill a vacancy, served a single day in 1922.
Now, Mikulski said, the women get their picture taken with each new Congress, "so we can see this evolutionary process."
"I didn't just want to be a first," she said. "I wanted to be the first of many."
Mikulski views the dinners as an opportunity to "come together in friendship," even as women sitting across the table from one another might have strong differences on issues from abortion to offshore oil drilling to taxes.
"We come together for friendship," she said."You can disagree without being disagreeable. You can still kick back and have a crab cake."
After the heated November elections, Mikulski worried that the dinners might not survive the heightened partisanship.
"I've talked to the Democratic women and the Republican women. 'It's a new day. You've been through tough fights,'" she said. "'Do you want to continue the dinners?'"
"You know what the response was?" she said. "Now more than ever."