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Republican takeover of Senate pushes women out of powerful committee posts

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WASHINGTON » Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the new chairwoman of the Energy Committee, was at a reception in Hershey, Penn., last month when aides to Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 2 Republican in the House, presented her with a party favor: a black windbreaker with the words "Chairman’s Table" on the back.

There was just one problem: The windbreaker was for a man, and far too big for Murkowski. McCarthy’s aides say they simply ran out of women’s jackets in Murkowski’s size, but to her the episode reflects a new reality on Capitol Hill.

"His staff was, of course, very apologetic," said Murkowski, who gave the windbreaker to her husband and said she took no offense. "But I did think that was somewhat telling. We are not thinking about the women."

The November elections brought a record number of female lawmakers to Washington. With 20 in the Senate and 84 in the House, women for the first time in history hold more than 100 seats in Congress. But the Republican takeover of the Senate has also cost women powerful committee leadership posts and presented new challenges to their wielding of power.

Last year, when Democrats controlled the Senate, women led a record nine committees, including male bastions like the Appropriations Committee, which dispenses billions in federal dollars, and Intelligence, which oversees the government’s secret national security apparatus. Now there are only two female committee chairs: Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

In the House, while women hold 5 of the 10 elected leadership spots, only one woman — Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan — leads a committee.

The reason is largely because Congress is a culture where power is tied tightly with seniority, and committee chairmanships do not go to junior members. More than two-thirds of female lawmakers are Democrats, and Democratic women, who overall were elected earlier and in larger numbers than their Republican counterparts, have more longevity. When Democrats lost control, women lost top jobs.

"You cannot deny that women were in a more powerful position in the United States Senate when the Democrats were in control," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "It’s not to say that women can’t and won’t exert leadership, but we do know that titles matter, those formal positions of leadership matter."

Women do of course flex their muscles regardless of rank. A revolt by Republican women recently forced House leaders to abandon a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In the Senate last week, Murkowski shepherded to pass a bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry petroleum from Canada to the Gulf Coast, her party’s first legislative priority in the new Congress.

"The women in the Senate — there are no pushovers here," Murkowski said, rejecting the notion that women have lost power. "I don’t think that Barbara Mikulski" — the Maryland Democrat and former Appropriations chair — "goes shrinking away because she’s not gaveling in the meeting."

But in an institution whose core function — writing laws — rests with committees, chairmen and chairwomen wield enormous influence. They alone can call hearings, the first real step in shaping and passing legislation.

"The ranking minority member may have some wonderful ideas," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, "but unless the chair approves, it’s not going to happen."

For Democratic women, watching the tough-talking Mikulski transition from chair of the Appropriations Committee to ranking member has been especially difficult. Elected to the Senate in 1986, she is by far its most senior woman and has for years held bipartisan dinners for female colleagues. In 2013, after nearly three decades on the committee, she made history by becoming the first woman to run it.

"Barbara Mikulski has worked and fought and thrashed and clawed for decades to get the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, and to have it snatched away almost as soon as she got it, all of us feel for her," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "It’s painful for us."

In an email message, Mikulski said she would "continue to have a voice," adding, "While I’ve been in the minority before, I’ve never been on the sidelines."

It has been 22 years since the "Year of the Woman" elections doubled the number of Senate women — from two to four — and progress has come in fits and starts, the women of the Senate say. Collins, the Maine Republican who now chairs the Committee on Aging and ran the Homeland Security Committee when George W. Bush was president, recalls one moment of self-awareness when Donald Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, was testifying.

"I looked to my left and I looked to my right, and all of a sudden it occurred to me that there were no women on the dais," she said. "And then I looked down at the witness table, which probably had five people on it, and there were no women. And I remember thinking, ‘But I’m in charge!’ "

As more women have come to the Senate, they have been credited with changing its dynamic and leading the way in cutting bipartisan deals. Collins, Murkowski and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., bucked their party to push for an end to the 2013 budget shutdown. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., got a long-stalled farm bill passed when she ran the Agriculture Committee. As chair of the Budget Committee last year, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., forged a bipartisan budget with Rep. Paul Ryan, her House counterpart.

"As women were chairing these committees, you saw a lot of bipartisan agreements," Murray said. "So if you just look at it from that perspective, I’m worried, going forward, that we will not have those same things that women bring to the table to help get agreements in a way that works for everybody."

But Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist, said that if Democrats were doing such a good job, voters would not have thrown them out.

"The point that you had nine female Democratic senators chairing committees last cycle was either soundly rejected by voters, or it didn’t matter," she said. "Any way you slice it, they put Republicans in power."

With the elections of Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Republicans now have a record number of women in the Senate. But there are no women in the elected Republican leadership, and still so few overall that of the 20 committees, five — including Banking and Finance — lack a single Republican woman. Both men and women say that creates an optics problem for a party trying to court female voters and fend off accusations from Democrats of a war on women.

"It doesn’t help us as a party," Murkowski said, "when the public out there thinks that there’s this Republican initiative that is not supportive of women, and then they look at the makeup of the Senate and we just don’t have very many."

Sen. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, put it simply: "I think it helps to have a Senate leadership that looks more like the rest of America."

So Republican leaders are doing what they can to put women forward.

They asked Ernst, an Iraq War combat veteran whose ads about her hog-castrating skills captured national attention this fall, to give the televised Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address. Murkowski recently gave the party’s weekly address.

And as soon as the new Senate convened, McConnell expanded his leadership team to include four unelected counselors, two of them women: Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Capito, who has deep experience in Washington from 14 years in the House.

"I think he wants more voices at the table, women’ voices," Capito said.

But at least one Senate woman, Fischer, longs for the day when all the talk about women in Congress would just go away.

"Let’s talk about who’s effective at doing their jobs," she said. "That’s how I want to be judged."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

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