WASHINGTON - Inside a grand committee room in the Capitol on a recent afternoon, Sen. Patty Murray paused at the end of the 31-foot conference table to reenact how, as a rank-and-file lawmaker years ago, she would have to stand up and wave to catch the attention of the men running negotiations from the center of the room.
Now it is Murray, D-Wash., whose name is etched in gold cursive at the center of the table, set among frescoes of Roman goddesses and a multitiered crystal chandelier, signifying her position as the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. These days, she is part of the first-ever all-female team of Republicans and Democrats to lead the congressional committees that control government spending.
The group will play a pivotal role this year in what is expected to be an epic and high-stakes fiscal battle whose two principal players, President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will meet for the first time Wednesday to feel each other out for the coming fight.
Etched alongside Murray's name is that of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the panel. In the House, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, is the newly installed chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is the top Democrat. At the White House, the top budget official is Shalanda Young, the first Black woman to head the Office of Management and Budget.
Their political profiles are vastly different: Murray and DeLauro are both liberals, Collins is a center-leaning Republican, and Granger is a staunch conservative. But they have all experienced versions of the same struggle on Capitol Hill: the hustle to get recognized, the extra layer of scrutiny from male colleagues and often being the only woman in the room.
And as Republicans and Democrats position themselves for a major clash over funding in the coming months, they say they are determined to defy what they acknowledge are steep odds and bring some sanity and orderliness to the spending debate.
"We do bring different experiences, and in my experience are often more collaborative than our male counterparts," Collins said. The hope, she added, was "that we will work together as a team, knowing that it is going to be difficult. But I think that new leadership and sometimes, ironically, a divided Congress politically can plant the seeds for good compromise."
In congratulatory and birthday phone calls and quiet asides at meetings where they have gathered to document their collective accomplishment, the women have discussed their desire to return to the days when the powerful spending panels publicly worked for months to hammer out and pass a dozen individual funding bills. It would be a major departure from the current practice, which typically involves months of stalemate followed by a few weeks of frenzied scrambling to put together a huge bill totaling hundreds of billions of dollars that must be rammed through Congress with the threat of a shutdown looming.
"I've gotten to see the arc of these jobs up close and personal," said Young, a former staff director for the House Appropriations Committee. "If the group was different, maybe I'd be less optimistic, but with this group, I do know that they care more about what's best for the American people."
It is a remarkable milestone at a precarious moment for the Appropriations committees, as a new Republican majority in the House vows to slash government spending and take aim at the domestic spending priorities championed by Biden and Democrats in control of the Senate. McCarthy, as he labored to lock down the support he needed to secure the speakership, agreed to empower conservatives who demanded a greater say in the spending process and have called to drastically reduce federal funding.
Lawmakers in both parties have also grumbled about how the spending process has become increasingly distorted into a last-minute scramble, where a few senior lawmakers jam funding and other policy priorities into a catchall package released with just days to spare before a year-end shutdown.
But if there is any chance for success in a year of particularly partisan divided government, these five women are determined to find it. They have been friends and colleagues for years - Granger and DeLauro both attended a baby shower for Young, whose daughter was born in 2021 - and share a deep respect for and expertise in the appropriations process.
They have each earned reputations as tough negotiators who have weathered shutdowns, the threat of default on the nation's debt and the politicking of their male colleagues. (DeLauro, in particular, Young noted wryly, "can yell with the best of them," having wrangled two spending packages into law during the last two years as the chair of the committee.)
"We often think of our families in our communities," said Murray, who also became the first woman to serve as Senate president pro tempore this year, a position that puts her third in line to the presidency. "I see the appropriations as an opportunity for women to really work on making sure their country is OK. Are we investing adequately in those places that help ensure that our grandkids have those communities?"
Granger, the first Republican woman to hold the gavel on the House panel, has pushed back against her party's right flank in the past. In 2020, she held off a primary challenger who sought to frame her work on the Appropriations Committee as irresponsible even as she drove millions of dollars to build military aircraft in her district and championed funding for security at the southern border.
And while she opposed a roughly $1.7 trillion catchall spending package in December, Granger was directly involved in negotiating an end to the nation's longest government shutdown in 2019. She has also signaled some resistance to some of the steep cuts to military spending other conservatives have called for.
"We have all worked on important policy issues ranging from defense and national security to transportation to education. All of these issues are important to women, and they will continue to be priorities for us," Granger said. "We'll have our work cut out for us over the next two years because my constituents are demanding we find reasonable, sensible and responsible ways to get control of runaway spending in Washington."
The four lawmakers have all been in Congress since the 1990s, when there were far fewer women serving, and have steadily worked together as they have climbed the ranks of the committees. DeLauro, the daughter of Italian immigrants, and Murray, whose family once relied on food stamps, have teamed up to establish lifelines for the nation's poorest families.
Granger, who was the first female mayor of Fort Worth before serving in Congress, has championed her district. Collins, whose family has maintained a lumber business for generations, has emerged as one of the Senate's most meticulous bipartisan negotiators in moments of gridlock over both funding and policy.
"I believe that there's a fundamental understanding of why we are here and why we serve here," DeLauro said, her half-dozen rings clinking together as she gestured over a desk piled high with paper and briefing material she pores over every day. "It's a tremendous power the institution has. Its potential is just extraordinary. It doesn't always do what you want, but it has the ability to transform people's lives."
© 2023 The New York Times Company