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Trailblazer Mikulski Celebrates a Milestone

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski will surpass the late Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers as the longest-serving female Member of Congress. According to the Senate Historical Office, Mikulski will reach 12,858 days of service Saturday.

“In his grocery store, when people would be having a hard time, he would always extend credit, a helping hand,” she said. “If someone was laid off or unemployed ... their family wouldn’t go hungry as long as Willy Mikulski was their grocer,” she said. “I learned that we are all in it together. It’s not always that we’re blood family, but it’s your extended family that we really have to be considerate of.”

A social worker by trade, she entered politics as a neighborhood activist: She won a city council seat in 1971 after a successful battle against a highway project.

After losing her first bid for Senate in 1974, she won a seat to the House in 1976. She served five terms before moving to the Senate in 1987.

Her chief legislative accomplishments reflect her attitude about government being an engine of social justice: allowing Medicaid recipients to protect certain assets while getting assistance in paying for a spouse’s nursing-home care and a 2009 law clarifying time limits for workers to file employment discrimination lawsuits, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.

In a January 2011 floor speech, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) remembers Mikulski saying during the Ledbetter debate to the “ women of America: Suit up, square your shoulders, put your lipstick on. We’re ready for a revolution.”

Mikulski calls the 2010 health care overhaul law one of the “greatest social justice initiatives” in which she has participated.

“She is very loyal and fierce friend,” said Benjamin Cardin, Maryland’s junior Democratic Senator, on one of his morning drives to Washington. Cardin said he remembers Mikulski from her city council work. “She’s a remarkable person. I tell ya, she really does represent the best of Maryland.”

Less Shove, More Push

A portrait of Rogers, a Massachusetts Republican who died in 1960, hangs in the Cannon House Office Building hearing room for the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. After winning her seat, she said: “I hope that everyone will forget that I am a woman as soon as possible.”

That’s not a sentiment Mikulski, co-author of a book about women in the Senate, would be likely to echo.

Outside the Appropriations Committee, Mikulski is not known as a champion of bipartisanship — her lifetime party unity score in the Senate is about 94 —or a practitioner of civil discourse — during the recent debate on the administration’s birth control mandate she accused Republicans of waging “a systematic war against women.’’

But, even as she has rarely been one to tone down her own partisan rhetoric, she makes a plea for more civility on Capitol Hill.

Mikulski said bipartisanship has diminished on Capitol Hill since she arrived, a conclusion highlighted by the recent retirement announcement of Snowe.

“I would hope as I commemorate this, we go back to what I found when I first came to the Congress, which is a spirit of bipartisanship,” she said. “I saw that in the way Tip O’Neill and Bob Dole and Howard Baker all could work together, both sides of the aisle, both sides of the Dome. When push came to shove, there was less of a shove, and more of a push, to get the job done.”

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