Ms. Smith Goes To Washington

When congressional Democrats and Republicans took to the field in the summer of 1993 for their annual baseball game, it was obvious that this was not some old grudge match between teams of over-the-hill frat boys. For the first time, the boys let three girls play, too. "I'm not sure at the very start that they were interested in having women play," says Representative Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the first woman to reach base in the Capitol classic's history. "But eventually, they accepted me."

The baseball breakthrough parallels a more significant change: Women lawmakers are playing political hardball on Capitol Hill. Thanks to a milestone election in 1992--female membership soared from 2 to 7 in the Senate and from 28 to 47 in the House--male veterans are reluctantly accepting what might well be deemed a sexual revolution in the legislative agenda.

Not only has the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues seen its family-oriented agenda take center stage but also women lawmakers have made a difference on a broad range of other issues. They have sparked institutional reforms and have cast decisive votes on the top issues of the 103rd Congress--deficit reduction and gun control. "They've brought a lot of idealism and a lot of energy to issues," says House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "They've had a big impact."

Consider the bill to restrict product-

liability suits, which the Senate killed in June. Arguing that it would curb women's rights to sue makers of defective health devices, the Senate's freshman Democratic women cast the key votes to sustain a filibuster that doomed the measure. "If there hadn't been as many women in the Senate, the issue would have been dead and buried," crows consumer activist Pamela Gilbert, director of Congress Watch.

Congressional women don't think alike on everything, of course. Unlike the Congressional Black Caucus, whose 38 Democratic members usually vote in liberal lockstep, the 40 Democratic and 14 Republican women generally join forces only on social issues, where they are largely progressive. "We have some vast differences philosophically, but it is amazing how we come together on issues of importance to women," says Representative Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.), a caucus co-chair.

"WONDERFUL." As a result, 55 bills backed by the bipartisan Women's Issues Caucus are expected to become law in this Congress, compared with 39 in the last Congress and 19 in the previous one. Among them: national criminal-history checks for child-care providers, tougher child-support enforcement laws, an end to the rule banning women from combat ships, and a requirement that the Resolution Trust Corp. reserve contracts for women-owned businesses. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who once quit work to care for her children, pushed hard for the Family & Medical Leave Act. And Representative Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.), a former domestic worker, won new labor protections for women who clean houses. "We'd been at it for five or six years on some of these things," says Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), caucus co-chair and an 11-term House veteran. "It's wonderful to see things getting to the `out' box."

During debate over 1994 appropriations, the 17-year-old caucus persuaded Congress to reorder spending priorities--boosting funding for women's health research, including breast and ovarian cancer and osteoporosis. The caucus has notched nearly a dozen abortion victories, including the expansion of abortion availability for military women, federal employees, and rape and incest victims. An even bigger pro-choice victory came in May, when President Clinton signed a bill outlawing blockades of abortion clinics.

Even if Clinton hadn't favored that law, he would have owed female lawmakers one: His 1993 economic plan would have died without the near-unanimous support of Democratic women. In the House, 33 of 35 Democratic women stood by their man--even though Clinton's tax hike was unpopular back home--while 16% of Democratic men voted no (as did all the GOP women).

Women played an equally pivotal role in passing the assault-weapons curbs that Clinton signed into law on Sept. 13. In the House, women not only provided the two-vote margin of victory--83% of women vs. 46% of men supported the ban--but also worked behind the scenes lobbying colleagues. In the Senate, chief sponsor Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) emerged triumphant despite a withering barrage from the gun lobby.

Considering that most of the women are strangers to Capitol Hill, they're adept operators--and organizers. The women's caucus holds regular bipartisan strategy sessions, and--more unusual--members work out together in the House gym. What's more, newcomers meet regularly for women-only dinners, comparing experiences and getting pointers from veteran colleagues.

Displaying a bit of female chauvinism, first-term Representative Jennifer B. Dunn (R-Wash.) contends that organization comes naturally because "a lot of us have raised children. Sometimes, the men seem surprised that we are such good follow-through people." Patience and persistence, other traits accomplished parents develop, also have paid off for frosh: California Democratic Representative Jane Harman pushed tenaciously in committee to save the C-17 transport plane built in her district. And Cantwell, a high-tech expert, doggedly lobbied Vice-President Al Gore until he modified a controversial "clipper chip" encryption proposal strongly opposed by Microsoft Corp., based in her district.

SILENT TREATMENT. The women's style doesn't always score runs with the men's club. When Representative Karen Shepherd (D-Utah) proposed banning lobbyists' gifts, she got the silent treatment. "I went through a week when nobody was talking to me on the floor," she recalls. "But I gutted it out, and the bill passed." Shepherd later won approval of a law ending lifetime staff subsidies for former Presidents and House Speakers. Representative Karan English (D-Ariz.), meanwhile, compelled the House to ban use of congressionally accrued frequent-flyer miles for personal trips. The Old Bulls are still smarting. Complains one top aide: "They're very, very demanding."

The caucus may get even more so after the November elections--though women's gains won't be like 1994's (table, page 96). In the Senate, Feinstein is fighting for survival against Representative Michael Huffington (R-Calif.), who is spending much of his family fortune to paint her as a Clintonesque waffler. In the House, men are likely to replace three departing women.

Of the House incumbents running again, many Democratic women face tough races. The most endangered are first-termers who were elected as outsiders in swing districts last time but now are seen as nouveaux insiders in a decidedly anti-incumbent year. "They came to Washington and superglued themselves to the Democratic leadership," says Karen Kerrigan of the Small Business Survival Committee, a conservative group. "They made themselves part of the problem, and playing the woman card back home isn't going to cut it this time." Further, the number of open seats--easier for women to capture than incumbents' seats--has shrunk to 50 from 91 in 1992. The shift in issues won't help. Crime is Topic A, and polls show that voters often see women as soft on criminals.

The National Women's Political Caucus fears a loss of five to eight female incumbents this fall. "We're all marginal," worries Shepherd. Still, incumbent losses are likely to be more than offset by newcomers' victories.

Even so, Hill women will hold little more than 10% of congressional seats. "We still have a long way to go," says Snowe, who's running for the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell. For one thing, the seniority system deprives them of committee chairmanships. That should change next year, when retirements are expected to to make Schroeder chair of the House Post Office & Civil Service Committee.

A few women are expected to assume top party leadership spots next year, too. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) is favored to win her party's No.3 Senate job, while Representatives Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.), Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), and Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) are vying for House posts.

Congressional women are too numerous and skillful to be ignored again. But they must expand their roster and accrue seniority to become team captains--not just versatile utility players.

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