Barbara Mikulski Is Just the Kind of Political Badass the Senate Needed

Who is single-handedly fending off the Tea Party Huns from gutting the federal budget, standing up for needy families, and making House Speaker John Boehner look like one of the sad clown porcelain figurines your grandmother keeps in her home just to make unwanted visitors ill at ease? That would be the diminutive (she's 4 feet 11 inches tall) part-time author and full-time Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a woman so acutely aware of her own awesomeness that she made herself the no-bullshit protagonist of a mystery novel she wrote five years ago.

Slate's David Weigel offers an abbreviated profile of Mikulski in the wake of her recent Appropriations victory. Although Sen. Rand Paul and his Raggedy Andy hair dominated most of the media noise from the Senate's great spending debate when they filibustered endlessly about military drones, it was Mikulski's skilled management of the debate that proved most significant.

After two male Senators (Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Iowa's Tom Harkin) declined the top spot on the Appropriations committee, the job of filling Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye's shoes fell to Mikulski. Her first test was going to be a doozy, too — a face-off with (ostensibly) parsimonious House Republicans about the nature of sequestion cuts. To keep the government from falling into a dusty heap like some tuckered-out wildebeest too-long pursued by a pack of lions on March 27, House Republicans pushed a spending package that limited government check-writing to $982 billion. The only problem is that sequestration cuts were also set to intrude on the precious realm of defense spending, and Republicans didn't want that. They added back a few billion dollars here and there for things like soldier pay and embassy maintenance, but they kept the cuts on social programs, warning the Senate that the continuing resolutions bill would lost House Republican support if those social program cuts were restored.

Enter the proactive leadership of Sen. Mikulski, who'd had quite enough of John Boehner's soft-spoken ultimatums. According to Weigel:

"Congressman Boehner's going to talk about what he needs to talk about," she said. "We are definitely not in a posture of being provocative or pugilistic ... if we want to be pugilistic we would have taken some of these bills and just jammed it through." She referred to the Senate's bill as "Mikulski-Shelby," giving credit to Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking member. They would work it out between members. "I don't know if we'll have a full blown, everybody see it, kumbaya, read everything," she said; there was a difference "between a conversation and a conclave."

In the following days, Mikulski introduced a bipartisan amendment to the "Mikulski-Selby bill" that increased Funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, along with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families along with funding for civil legal services, fending off challenges from spending-wary Republican Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn. McCain and Coburn predictably asked for more time to look at the bill, but Mikulski addressed their concerns with the kind of deftness and respect that often seems curiously absent in debates between our lawmakers:

It wouldn't be a real bill if you two didn't offer amendments. In the days when we were skeptical and even suspicious of one another, you wanted to look at it to make sure there were no cheap gimmicks, no little fast hand motions, no earmarks parachuted in. But I can say this: After the Democrats finished the bill, we gave it to Sen. Shelby and his staff. This bill has been very much scrutinized so that any of those tricks of the old days are not here … if anyone spots something they think is a cute gimmick, I would sure like to know about it.

The Senate passed the bill late on Wednesday with 63 votes of cloture. That included nine Republican votes, and everybody did indeed have a minor "kumbaya" moment, when they could go about running the country instead of screaming at each other. Of course, that's all in another hard day's work for Gumshoe Mikulski, the detective/Senator who managed to locate some portion of common sense and return it to a few of her Republican colleagues.

Barb Wire [Slate]