BETHESDA, Md. — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is weighing what she’ll do after she leaves the Senate, but she is sure of one thing: She’s not going quietly.
“I’m not writing a final chapter. I’m here ready to roar, ready to roll and ready to get the job done,” the Maryland Democrat said at a speech at the National Institutes of Health on Monday. Serving the public, she said, is in her DNA.
“If you take the sample, you take the swab, you’ll find the ‘serve’ gene,” Mikulski said, eliciting laughs from the National Institutes of Health employees gathered at the agency’s auditorium.
Mikulski, 79, the longest-serving woman in Congress, announced her retirement last March, setting off a fierce fight among two House Democrats, Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, to fill her seat. She was first elected to the House in 1976, and said Monday that she had to decide if she would run for re-election and “raise money for me or raise hell for you,” and chose the latter.
After the speech, Mikulski expanded on her post-Senate plans, laying out some of the issues she hopes to focus on.
“I will find a way, as I said, through various advocacy efforts to be able to continue to advocate this, my work certainly with women, empowering women and girls, and education,” Mikulski told reporters. “And we’ll do that through the nonprofit world.”
But for now she’s keeping her focus on the Senate. With roughly seven months left in office, she is poised to once again wield her influence over government funds as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
On Monday, she earned praise from NIH director Dr. Francis Collins for championing money for health research and for the NIH, which is in her home state. According to the Congressional Research Service , funding for the NIH nearly doubled between 1998 and 2003, from $13.7 billion to $27.1 billion. As tokens of gratitude, Collins gave Mikulski a plaque complete with a gold-plated petri dish, and earrings with the NIH logo.
The jewelry also bore a special meaning for Mikulski, who said in 2013 that she would “work my earrings off” to ensure the NIH was not harmed by budget cuts. At the same event, after meeting with a patient, she coined the agency as the “National Institutes of Hope.”
Mikulski said she would work to ensure the agency receives adequate funding this year, promising the NIH employees the “best damn appropriations you’ve ever seen.”
The Senate is set to kick off its appropriations process this week, as subcommittees are expected to receive their funding allocations on Thursday. While they are set to begin the process, Mikulski’s committee is also considering President Barack Obama’s nearly $2 billion request for emergency cash to combat the Zika virus. Transmitted by mosquitos, it threatens to spread in the U.S. and its territories during the warmer months. Puerto Rico has been especially hard hit.
Mikulski has supported the president’s request, which was met with some GOP skepticism. At the NIH, she told reporters she was disappointed by Republican opposition to the funding.
“As I say, the mosquitos are coming, You can’t build a wall to stop them,” Mikulski said. “The mosquitos won’t pay for the wall. We ought to have a supplemental.”
Though there are challenges ahead as Mikulski fights for funding in her final year, she did take some time Monday to reflect on the past and her future after the Senate.
During her tenure, she helped call attention to the lack of women included in research studies, which spurred the idea for the NIH Office of Research in Women’s Health.
Mikulski choked up as she recalled her final conversation with former NIH director Dr. Bernadine Healy, before Healy died. They discussed one of its studies that had led to a reduction in breast cancer rates. She also praised the NIH’s involvement in mapping the human genome, combating the HIV-AIDS epidemic and leading stem cell research.
Mikulski also said young people should be able to pursue their passions, and that more should be done to ensure quality education across the U.S. and to combat student loan debt. With those problems still facing Americans, Mikulski said she’ll still have a hand in serving her state and country.
“I’ll find a way to have something to say,” Mikulski said. “You can count on that.”
John Bennett and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.