Can they prevent the United States from being on the verge of a fiscal abyss?

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This year, for the first time in history, all four leaders of the two congressional spending committees are women.

From left to right, Shalanda Young, the first black woman to lead the Office of Management and Budget; Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine; Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. ; and House Appropriations Chair, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, speaking during an interview with The Associated Press on Washington’s Capitol Hill, Thursday, January 26, 2023. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

WASHINGTON (AP) — They are now among the most powerful women in Congress. But when they were first elected in the 1990s, they were often ignored and even looked down upon.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, remembers the men who didn’t question her, but turned to the other men in the room. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says a male colleague once challenged her at a hearing to describe a military tank engine produced in her district without looking at her notes. (She shot back, “Damn, I can!”)

Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, says one of the first times she presided over a committee hearing, she looked around the room and realized she was the only female senator. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., remembers sitting at the far end of the committee podium, with the older men making decisions in the middle.

“I remember finally getting up at the end of the table and saying, ‘Excuse me!’ Because you couldn’t get their attention,” Murray said. “It was all decided in the middle of that table. I find it quite amazing that we are now in the middle of the table.

This year, for the first time in history, all four leaders of the two congressional spending committees are women. Granger chairs the House Appropriations Committee, while DeLauro is the leading Democrat; Murray is Senate Appropriations Chairman and Collins is the top Republican.

Sitting with The Associated Press on Thursday for their first joint interview — and joined by Shalanda Young, the first black woman to head the Office of Management and Budget and a former housekeeper — the women spoke like old friends, nodding their heads and laughing as they listened to the stories of others about how it used to be for women, and sometimes still is.

When elected, Collins says, men were automatically accepted as soon as they entered Congress, but women still had to prove themselves. “That additional barrier that was definitely there still exists to some degree, but much less than before,” Collins said. “Women bring different life experiences and different perspectives. And that’s why it’s important.

The women said their camaraderie, friendship and willingness to work together will be crucial as they bear the enormous responsibility of keeping the government running and open – an annual task that will be made even more difficult this year as the Conservatives in the majority of the New GOP House is pushing for massive cuts and the US is in danger of defaulting. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, only got his job after accepting several demands from these far-right members, creating momentum that could become dangerous for negotiations as Congress must raise the debt ceiling in the coming months.

“It’s a moment in time,” says DeLauro. “You’re really looking at five women controlling the most powerful levers of government.”

Yet, she says, “none of us bury our heads in the sand. We know there will be difficulties.

Granger finds herself in the most awkward position as she tries to balance the demands of the House GOP conference with her own responsibility to keep the government running. An important task ahead, she said, is to explain what the spoilers do to the public. Although the committees are rarely in the spotlight, they are the beating heart of Congress, crafting “indispensable” bills that keep the government running. Decisions about funding levels for almost everything the government pays for — from the military to health care to food security to federal highways — pass through the hands of those responsible for appropriation.

When asked about the challenge ahead, Granger says “timelines are very important” when speaking to the Republican conference. She said there will come a time when she has to tell her GOP colleagues, “Then it’s final.”

Another key to the negotiations will be Young, the former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and has maintained a close relationship with the four women since becoming cabinet-level OMB director for President Joe Biden. DeLauro and Granger gave her a baby shower before she gave birth to her daughter in 2021, she said, and “you can’t replace those relationships.”

Young’s connections came in handy late last year when lawmakers scrambled to pass a massive $1.7 trillion bill that funded federal agencies through September and provided another major military and economic aid to Ukraine. However, Granger pointed to possible future problems and did not pass the final bill, as the GOP leadership refused.

Young joked that the four legislators probably wouldn’t have invited other OMB directors to interview them. Murray agreed, saying she answered their calls and texts immediately, “and that’s new to me.”

The women were gathered in Murray’s office, an enviable location on the west side of the Capitol with commanding views of the Washington Monument. It was once the domain of the legendary usurper, Senator Robert Byrd, DW.Va. Murray recalled that when she walked into the same room just after her election in 1992—the so-called “year of the woman”—she flat out asked to sit on the powerful spending panel.

As one of the few women in the Senate, Murray immediately won the coveted seat. But she found herself having to assert herself in what was still an old boys club. Thirty years later, she became panel chair, replacing outgoing Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. She also replaced Leahy as acting senator, a senior majority member who presides over the senate and is third in line for president.

His office in the Capitol, says Murray, “was occupied by many men who smoked cigars.”

Murray and Collins in particular have a long history together. In 2013, they both played key roles in ending the government shutdown. And when they replaced Leahy and retired Republican Senator Richard Shelby as committee leaders this year, they immediately issued a joint statement calling for a return to the regular process of passing individual bills.” responsibly and in a bipartisan way”, rather than brushing them aside. all in one huge bill at the end of the year.

Collins said no one on either side of the aisle, in either house, wanted to fund the government again with a huge year-end bill. “I really believe we can make real progress by working closely together,” she said.

All pay tribute to their predecessors on the committee, including former Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who was the first chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and had a habit of inviting new senators to her office. for what she called a “workshop”. about the credit process so that they can become familiar with the comprehensive workings of the committee.

In an interview, Mikulski, who retired in 2017 after 30 years in the Senate, said women are “brilliant strategists” who can disagree on politics but don’t let grudges creep between them.

“What pleases me is that they have not only broken the glass ceiling, but also have the keys to the safe,” says Mikulski.

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