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Republican women lead the way

While male leaders of both parties are barely speaking to each other, GOP women have never stopped talking to their Democratic counterparts in the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Susan Collins, and Rep. Niki Tsongas leave after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 23, 2013.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Susan Collins, and Rep. Niki Tsongas leave after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 23, 2013.

Last week half-a-dozen lawmakers milled about on the steps of the Capitol, discussing NASCAR and baseball at what Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul billed as a bipartisan "coffee break."

Then Sen. Susan Collins of Maine spoke up.

"Alright, enough of this baseball talk," Collins said, pulling the dozen or so senators--all men--into a huddle.

In a low voice, out of the earshot of reporters, she got down to business, pushing her fellow members of Congress to start deal-making.

She kept up her low-profile politicking, and six days later she had something to show for it. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Kelly Ayotte signed onto a six-month budget agreement that would reopen the government while giving agencies more flexibility on sequestration and repeal Obamacare's medical device tax. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was an idea worth considering. Even some Democrats were intrigued.

The Maine Senator is now in talks with Democrats about pulling together a deal, as many Senators began to discuss variations on Collins's plan on Thursday night.

Collins’ exact plan might not become the final compromise, but her efforts are a reminder that for all the headlines Tea Party Republicans have grabbed during this fight for digging in, it’s going to be moderates who do the work in their own conference--and then across the aisle--to get a deal.

Many senators say Collins’ moves reflect another dynamic as well: while male leaders of both parties have barely been speaking to each other, much less negotiating, Republican women have never stopped talking to their Democratic counterparts in the Senate.

In fact, they’ve kept at it just as they have on other big issues--from military sexual assault to mental health and the farm bill. Would Washington be a different place if the tactics of women senators, who make up just 20% of the Senate, were the norm?

Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell certainly believes it would. "If it were up to the women, this would be over already," she said. "There's still a lot of testosterone going around."

Collins is hopeful. "I think it would be great if the women lead a way toward a solution on this," said Collins. "I think it's a possibility that women can bring an end to this impasse--I hope so."

On midday Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a moderate Democrat from Missouri, said Collins was one of only three people she'd spoken with in the past 12 hours as senators tried to reach a bipartisan accord. And with far more comity in the upper chamber than in a more polarized House, especially among GOP female leaders, the Democrat said that may be the way a breakthrough is eventually reached.

"The women that are in the Senate, by and large, are trying to find that place where we can get something done," said McCaskill." "We're not as interested in fighting as we are in moving the substance of the issue."

"That's especially true for Republican women," she added.

For women in the Senate, cross-aisle discussions and bargaining aren’t unusual.

On Monday, the New Hampshire delegation—Ayotte, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat—co-hosted a pizza dinner in Shaheen's Senate office to talk informally.

"We're meeting, getting to know each other on a personal level," said Ayotte. "Certainly on Monday night, there was frustration on both sides of the aisle. 'Let's get this resolved for the American people.' "

Just a few days earlier, the women of the Senate had a potluck dinner at Sen. Amy Klobuchar's apartment—a bipartisan gathering that happens every six weeks. "When Lisa Murkowski had hers, she made salmon that her husband had fished," Klobuchar said. "But my husband did not kill the chickens we made."

The frequent, informal gatherings have created a kind of collegiality that seems to be of a bygone era, far removed from today's entrenched partisan warfare. While the women of the Senate were sitting together at dinner last week, Rep. Paul Ryan and seven of his male colleagues were sitting across the table from empty chairs to try to shame Democrats for refusing to negotiate. "We have personal relationships, and even though our ideological views span the spectrum, we do tend to be more collaborative, I think,” said Collins.

On Thursday, Collins said she'd had productive conversations with other Democrats, saying Klobuchar had seemed "very interested" in her idea to include a repeal of a medical device tax that is part of the Obamacare health care law. (Minnesota is home to a good number of medical device-makers.)

On the Democrat side, while Harry Reid has been the public face of the current fight--and the force holding the party in line through the ordeal--women have been critical figures in shaping the caucus's budget priorities.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray and Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski are veteran lawmakers known for being low-profile "workhorses" rather than show horses.The two women have worked to get budget deals repeatedly in recent years.

For women, says Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, "it's much less about ego and much more about problem-solving."

There still isn’t a clear-cut solution in either chamber, as Democratic leaders have continued to balk at any concession for reopening the government or raising the debt limit.