The Baltimore native and Maryland Democrat, who had been the most senior member of the U.S. Senate without a committee gavel, was suddenly in line to head the influential spending panel following behind-the-scenes maneuvering for chairmanships that played out after the death Monday of its former chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
The Democratic caucus is expected to formally approve her chairmanship Thursday.
Mikulski, 76, will take over the panel at a time when the federal government is focused on deficit reduction, meaning the committee will face more hard choices about cuts than about investments. Its influence has waned somewhat since lawmakers banned earmarks — or pet projects often traded for votes — last year.
But the committee nevertheless has tremendous sway over federal purse strings, which means Mikulski will be in a position not only to set national policy but to protect the significant presence the federal government has in Maryland — including several agencies that are based in the state.
"Senators don't sit around waiting for these things, so this came as a surprise," Mikulski said in an interview Wednesday. "It's a big honor to chair this committee."
Mikulski has served on the Appropriations Committee since she joined the Senate in 1987 — a rare assignment for a freshman member. Now the most senior woman in Congress, Mikulski has a reputation for fiery oratory on the floor and for a persistent resolve in fighting for Maryland's interests.
"There is still a significant federal presence in the state of Maryland, and as chair she is in a position to make sure that those federal entities and those federal employees in her state get a fair shake in the budget appropriations process," said J. Keith Kennedy, a former Appropriations Committee staff chief who is a managing director at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Washington.
"She's been doing that her entire political career," he said.
It is the first time a Maryland lawmaker has held a chairmanship of one of the Senate's 16 standing committees since former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes led the Banking Committee a decade ago.
As late as Wednesday afternoon, Mikulski was considered most likely to take over the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The shuffle for committee assignments occurred largely out of sight as senators were still mourning Inouye's death. Mikulski and other senior lawmakers in line for a committee remained mum.
But by Wednesday evening it became clear that Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy had turned down the Appropriations gavel even though, as the Senate's most senior member, he was entitled to take it. Leahy will remain chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The next in line for the post was Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, who decided against the position in favor of remaining atop the Senate's committee on health issues.
Leahy broke the news about Mikulski in a message on Twitter Wednesday night.
"She'll be great," he wrote. "Already is."
The federal government is supposed to be funded through a series of appropriations bills that pass through the committee, though gridlock has recently forced Congress to keep the government running through stop-gap measures or massive spending bills that cover multiple departments. Mikulski said she hoped to change that practice.
"I've been concerned over the past several years that because of obstruction in the institution … we have not followed" the regular course of paying the government's bills, she said.
Though she is an outspoken liberal on many issues, several Republicans on the committee — including the incoming top Republican, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby — said they have strong relationships with Mikulski. Shelby and Mikulski were both elected to the House of Representatives in the late 1970s — Mikulski in 1976 and Shelby two years later — and they both entered the Senate after the 1986 election. Mikulski said Shelby was the first person she called after she heard from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that she would take over the committee.
"Senator Shelby has an excellent, longstanding working relationship with Senator Mikulski and he looks forward to continuing to work with her in this new capacity," Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo said.
Mikulski is one of her party's most ardent advocates on women's issues. In 2009, she successfully pushed through a law that extended the statute of limitations for suing an employer over wage discrimination. The bill was the first major piece of legislation President Barack Obama signed into law when he took office in 2009. She also successfully pushed to include expanded preventive health services for women in Obama's health care law.
She was last elected in 2010, beating Republican candidate Eric Wargotz with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Mikulski, a former social worker and member of the Baltimore City Council, began her political career in the late 1960s when she organized neighbors to block the expansion of Interstate 83 through Fells Point.
Her pending chairmanship was cheered by other members of Maryland's congressional delegation.
"Senator Barb has been shattering glass ceilings her entire career," Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland's junior senator, said in a statement. "As our nation's fragile recovery continues to pick up steam, Chairman Mikulski will help ensure that we find a path forward that keeps the federal government invested in job-creating, growth-friendly projects and programs."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Montgomery County Democrat who also is a top voice on fiscal issues in his party, summed up Mikulski's status as a cheerleader for her causes.
"When Barbara Mikulski is with you," Van Hollen quipped, "the Force is with you."
Mikulski made several appearances on the Senate floor Wednesday to address her latest concern — securing federal aid for Eastern Shore residents whose homes and businesses were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Federal officials have ultimately provided additional money for hard-hit Somerset County.
"I'm glad that on the day that this happened I was on the Senate floor speaking up for Crisfield," she said.