'Senator Barb' Mikulski nears retirement after 45 years in office

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, center, greets voters inside the Belvedere Square market in Baltimore, Maryland as she campaigns for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and other Maryland Democrats on November, 5, 2016.

WASHINGTON — A year into what would become five terms in the U.S. Senate, Barbara A. Mikulski was growing impatient with the pace of progress on her first major piece of legislation.

She wanted to protect seniors from going broke over the cost of a spouse's nursing home care. But her bill was going nowhere.


So the daughter of Highlandtown grocers, whose father was in a nursing home during the final stages of his battle with Alzheimer's disease, stormed the Senate floor and attempted a parliamentary maneuver to force a vote.

"I did an upstart thing," Mikulski said with a chuckle. "I thought I was being clever."


The gambit failed. But her drive caught the attention of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, then in his third term. The Texas Democrat pulled his junior colleague aside, offered some advice about Senate decorum — and vowed to work with her on the bill she desperately wanted to pass.

"It wasn't exactly a walk to the woodshed, but I learned about seniority, procedure — things that are not written in the civics books," said Mikulski, now 80. "It was a lesson on how to work with what I called the 'vintage crowd.'"

Mikulski, who will retire next month after 45 years in elected office, says she never looked the part of the vintage crowd. Her ceiling-breaking career has often been defined by her working-class beginnings and feisty temperament.

Still, the Maryland Democrat became an accomplished political tactician, able to maneuver through the Senate, ascend to the chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee and build a legacy that will endure long after Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, is sworn in next month as her successor.

Voters have come to know her as "Senator Barb," the blunt-speaking, 4-foot-11 social worker who broke barriers as the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right — that is, without following a male relative into office.

Colleagues came to know her as relentless.

Bentsen kept his promise to Mikulski. Instead of moving her nursing home bill through a high-profile floor fight, he helped the freshman attach it without much notice to a broader Medicare reform package. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law months later, and it's still on the books.

"I've made history, changed history and been an eyewitness to history," said Mikulski — with the list-of-three flourish characteristic of her rhetoric — during an interview with The Baltimore Sun.


She has faced criticism, including from within her own party, for her positions. Liberal Democrats were furious that an agreement she struck with Republicans in 2014 to fund the government included a provision that weakened Wall Street regulations. Some unions knocked her for working to expand a guest worker visa program that the seafood processing industry on the Eastern Shore, among others, considers essential.

Maryland Republicans, meanwhile, tried to use her lengthy career in Washington against her. A GOP candidate in 2010 ran a television ad describing his opponent as a "political insidersaurus" as Mikulski's face was superimposed over the image of a dinosaur.

She won re-election that year with more than 62 percent of the vote.

Famously irritated by small talk, tall lecterns and the swarms of Capitol Hill reporters who block her path to the Senate floor, Mikulski has never let go of her brash public persona, or her need to cut to the chase. Behind the scenes, though, the woman who ran against the "political bosses" also managed to find a way to speak their language and become an effective deal maker.

She slipped provisions into the 2010 Affordable Care Act to require that insurers cover preventive treatment for women — breast and cervical cancer screenings, for example — free of charge. In the 1990s, she teamed up with then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, on a bill that allowed homemakers to set up individual retirement accounts.

More recently, she shepherded legislation through Congress to extend the statute of limitations for suing an employer over wage discrimination. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was aimed at helping to ensure that women are paid as much as men for the same job, became the first major bill President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009.


Many of her successes have come not from dramatic floor fights or landmark legislation but rather from a facility — and an apparent penchant — for needling presidential administrations to act.

In 1990, Mikulski invited Republican women lawmakers to drive with her from the Capitol to the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health in a move designed to embarrass the agency's leaders into including more women and minorities in clinical trials. By 2014, 57 percent of enrollees in NIH-funded research were women.

When the Obama administration denied federal assistance to hundreds of Eastern Shore residents affected by superstorm Sandy in 2012, Mikulski repeatedly pressured the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the issue. In a rare move, the White House partly reversed that decision weeks later.

And then there is the money.

Mikulski, who has served on the Appropriations Committee since her first year in the Senate, directed hundreds of millions of dollars from what she calls "the federal checkbook" to her home state. Spending at the National Institutes of Health, for instance, increased fivefold since she was elected to the Senate, helping to fund advances in genome sequencing, Alzheimer's disease research and cancer treatment.

"She was a very effective voice," said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins.


While Collins and Mikulski have worked together closely, that closeness has not always protected him from the senator's often-brusque personality — the kind of disposition that regularly earned her the "meanest senator" designation from Washingtonian magazine.

At a hearing in April about agency funding, Mikulski asked Collins how much money he needed. She was looking for numbers, not words.

"We have, of course, seen over the course of the last 12 years a pretty tough period for NIH until this year," Collins began. "I've often thought it was useful to show this graphically …"

"I need a short answer," Mikulski interrupted.

"You can see the white line, that what's happened to our resources over the course of the last 20 years," Collins continued.

"The number, now," Mikulski snapped. "This is not a colloquium, it's a hearing, please. How much do you need?"


Collins laughed when reminded of that exchange.

"I remember it well," he said. "I got to the point."

She is credited with helping to save the Hubble Space Telescope, the orbiting research tool managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, after the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster grounded planned servicing missions.

When Hubble identified an exploding star 7.5 billion light years from Earth in 2012, scientists named it Supernova Mikulski.

"When you see the spectacular images and the incredible scientific discoveries that Hubble has led to, you have to say that Senator Mikulski was absolutely critical to making that happen," said Christopher Scolese, the center director at Goddard. "She's been the rock of the space program for years."

Born in 1936 to Polish-American grocers, Mikulski attended Catholic schools, and briefly considered becoming a nun. She went into a social work instead and rose to local prominence in the 1960s by helping to create the Southeast Community Organization to prevent the extension of Interstate 70 through Fells Point, at a time when highways were considered more important than neighborhood cohesion.


In 1971, she won a seat on the Baltimore City Council, where colleagues say she appropriated the brass spittoon that came with her desk — another relic of the old boys' network — and used it to plant a geranium.

When then-Rep. Paul Sarbanes moved to the Senate in 1976, Mikulski won the election for his House seat. A decade later, when Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias retired, she beat Republican Linda Chavez to begin her Senate tenure.

During the campaign, Chavez described Mikulski as an "anti-male feminist."

When Mikulski took her seat, there was only one other woman in the Senate — and no women's restroom.

With her wisecracking, trademark one-liners, Mikulski managed to bond with her mostly male colleagues.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who also entered the Senate in 1987 and is retiring next month, recalled a gathering of the freshman class.


"At that reception, we were all asked to say a few words," the Nevada Democrat said recently on the Senate floor. "Barbara stood up and said this about the campaign opponent who she had just beat: 'I may be short, but it sure wasn't hard for me to slam-dunk Linda Chavez.'

"It's safe to say that with that quip, Barbara immediately hit it off with all the members of our Senate class."

When the new Senate is sworn in next month, it will include a record 21 women senators — some of whom Mikulski has helped to elect. There is also now a women's restroom.

As the longest-serving woman in Congress, Mikulski organized private dinners with women senators of both parties. She campaigned with Democratic women in their home states and helped them to raise money. She also brought incoming and veteran women senators together for a meeting in her Capitol hideaway at the start of each new Congress.

Mikulski worked for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign this year, and their closeness was apparent in internal emails. "Am always ur friend," she signed a 2013 email to Clinton written on her Blackberry. "Talk soon about a meet up."

Asked whether it was harder to leave her job after Clinton's loss, and with President-elect Donald Trump moving into the White House, Mikulski mostly demurred. Some of the legislation that the Republican businessman has promised to reverse was Mikulski's.


"I believe that voters will say what they want," she said. "People are going to look at where they can work with Trump and where there will be a resistance movement."

Mikulski, one of the most liberal members of Congress, has served as a sharp-tongued spokeswoman for Democratic causes. In floor speeches and interviews, she churns out memorable slogans framing her mission as focusing on the "macro issues and the macaroni-and-cheese issues," for example, or assuring that "where there's a will, you can always find the wallet."

When Republicans took the Senate majority in 2015, she relinquished the Appropriations gavel and become the top-ranking Democrat on the committee.

Rep. Harold Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, called her a "fierce but fair negotiator."

"Though we didn't always see eye to eye, I could always count on her to come to the table ready to get the job done," he said.

Since she announced her retirement last spring, Mikulski has been cagey about her plans. She never married, and has no children.


She said she will continue to live in Baltimore, that she might work at an "academic institution" or help groups that are encouraging women to enter politics. She ruled out running for office again.

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"I still might make news," she said. "I might take tango lessons and do 'Dancing with the Stars.'"

In a final display of quiet legislative choreography, Mikulski slipped $255 million for the proposed new headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a stopgap government funding bill approved by Congress this month. It is a project she and other members of the state's congressional delegation have spent years trying to land for Maryland.

Characteristically, Mikulski didn't say much about the money until the votes were counted and the bill was on its way to the White House. It was likely her final legislative mark.

"This new century didn't get off the way I thought it would," she said in a rare moment of lament. "I was so optimistic about the 21st century, with the breakthroughs in technology and life science. I saw a world of less war, finding more cures — more breakthroughs and less bombs.

"For me it was the right time to go," she said. "But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to be done."