WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, delivering an emotional farewell speech on the Senate floor Wednesday after four decades in Congress, called for a return to civility in politics, and vowed to continue serving Maryland as a private citizen.
Surrounded by Democratic and Republican senators who came to hear her final major address, Mikulski recalled her early years in the male-dominated Senate and thanked voters for allowing a grocer's daughter from Highlandtown to rise to the highest levels of power on Capitol Hill.
"It is time for me to say goodbye to elected office, but not to service," said Mikulski, 80. "For me, no issue was too small to take up and no cause was too big for me to take on."
Mikulski, who declined to seek re-election this year for a sixth Senate term, will retire when a new Congress is sworn in next month. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a fellow Democrat, won the election last month to succeed her.
Mikulski — the longest-serving member of Congress in state history and the longest-serving woman in congressional history — pointed to her work on health care, science and pay equity as among her most significant achievements. She also noted her effort to expand the number and influence of female lawmakers.
The farewell speech is a tradition for retiring senators, but Mikulski, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that in her case it was a misnomer. Instead, she and her staff referred to the address as a "summing-up speech."
Congress is approaching a deadline Friday to approve government funding, giving Mikulski a final task and the likelihood of considerable floor time in her last days in office. Democrats are angered that Republicans have inserted language into a pending short-term funding bill that would expedite the confirmation of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis following President-elect Donald Trump's expected nomination to serve as defense secretary.
To be considered, Mattis would need a waiver from a 1947 law that requires defense secretaries to be retired from the military for at least seven years. Mattis retired from the Marine Corps in 2013.
In a statement after her speech, Mikulski said she is "deeply disappointed" that the legislation to keep the government funded through April does not include additional money for a proposed new headquarters for the FBI.
Bringing the project to Maryland has been a major goal of Mikulski's final year in office.
Mikulski steered clear of those issues on the Senate floor Wednesday as she basked in tribute speeches delivered by members of both parties.
"Everyone knows this: She is tough," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "Good luck stopping her once she puts her mind to something."
Sen. Ben Cardin, who will succeed Mikulski as Maryland's senior senator in January, said the state is "losing one of the great giants and advocates" for its issues.
Mikulski, a former social worker elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1971 and to the House five years later, recalled her successful efforts in Congress to get the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health to include women in clinical trials. Women's health care was a signature issue. During the 2010 debate over the Affordable Care Act, she inserted provisions to ensure that insurers would cover preventative care for women.
She pointed to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a measure that makes it easier for women to sue employers for equal pay — the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009 — as well as legislation that ensured seniors would not go bankrupt paying for a spouse's nursing home care.
Mikulski also pointed to her work to secure funding to repair the Hubble Space Telescope — she called it "the richest contact lens in world history" — after scientists discovered that its optics could not be focused sharply after its launch in 1990. She has also pushed for funding for its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is also being managed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
Mikulski is among the most liberal members of Congress and has served as a sharp-tongued spokeswoman for Democratic causes. Behind the scenes — particularly since her elevation on the Appropriations Committee — she has won praise from members of both parties for working across the aisle.
The most notable manifestation of that approach is her effort to bring women of both parties together for regular, private dinners — meetings that began more than two decades ago, when Mikulski and then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, started working together on legislation to help women save for retirement.
Mikulski also brought new and veteran female senators of both parties together for a meeting in her Capitol hideaway at the start of each new Congress.
"We knew we would never be a caucus, because we were not uniform in our views or the way that we voted," Mikulski said. "But what we wanted to be was, No. 1, a zone of civility, where we'd treat each other with respect."
Mikulski implored colleagues to continue on in that spirit and not "judge one another because we have a party label; I'm so sick of that."
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a fellow member of the Appropriations Committee, was one of the Republicans who came to listen to Mikulski's speech.
"I have learned so much from her," Collins said. "I've come to know her as a fighter, as a trailblazer and as a person of such integrity."
Mikulski has not said what she hopes to do with her time after leaving the Senate, other than saying she wants to find work that allows her to continue to serve.
"My plan is not a job description, it's a life description," Mikulski said.
She said she hopes to learn something new, give something back and make new friends every day.
"I've learned that the best ship you can sail on in life is something that's called friendship."