Two women could lead a powerful Senate spending panel for first time in history

Greg Nash

One of the Senate’s most powerful spending committees could see women at the helm for the first time in the next session of Congress following a string of announced retirements in the upper chamber.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, are prepared to retire at the end of their terms next year, and two senior members of the upper chamber’s largest committee are in line to succeed the pair.

Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose shared experience serving on the committee and in the upper chamber span decades, are poised to take their male colleagues’ places. 

With Leahy and Shelby set to leave Congress in 2022, the two female senators could lead the panel when the next congressional session commences at the start of the following year.

It would be the first time in the committee’s 154-year history that women sat in its two top seats, a committee aide confirmed to The Hill. 

Collins confirmed that she and Murray would be next up, by seniority, to fill the two top seats.   

And excitement about the historic prospect of female committee leadership has not been lost on Capitol Hill. 

“I’m very enthusiastic about the fact that you would have significant female leadership at the top of the Appropriations Committee, which is significant in and of itself,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a member of the spending committee, told The Hill. 

“The bonus there is you have two exceptional lawmakers,” she added, before praising both women as “extraordinary” senators and calling the idea of the pair in the two leading chairs “a win-win.”

Collins, who joined the committee in 2009, was also excited by the possibility of leadership with Murray in the next congressional session, saying she would be “very honored” to assume the ranking Republican chair.

In recent remarks to reporters, Murray brushed off questions about her potentially leading the committee and instead focused on efforts by herself and Democratic colleagues to secure measures like universal pre-K amid ongoing spending negotiations. 

“I am completely focused on working on making sure we get childcare for families, that we have universal pre-K, that we lower costs for health care,” Murray, a former preschool teacher preschool teacher and child care advocate, said this week.

“I’m not gonna even comment because I got too much work on my plate right now,” added Murray, who has served on the appropriations panel since 1993.

Talks of the two senators potentially leading the committee come against the backdrop of spending negotiations between lawmakers over significant proposals aimed at supporting and boosting workforce participation among women, including ideas like universal paid family leave and free preschool for children ages 3-4.

If either senator were to become chairwoman of the committee, it would be only the second time in history that a woman led the panel. The first woman to lead the panel was Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in 2012. 

A Republican woman has yet to serve as chair of the panel, which is tasked with crafting legislation to appropriate billions of dollars in spending each year to fund the government’s various agencies and operations. 

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the prospect of both Collins and Murray leading the committee for the first time was a sign of changing times. 

“We got seven women who chair full committees. We have 36 women who chair subcommittees in the House. So we’re strong,” she said. 

Over the years, women have continued to make record gains in Congress, with the number of female candidates who secured victories in last year’s midterm races surpassing a previous record set after more than 131 women were elected, data from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) shows.

However, a closer look at the data from the political unit showed those gains were largely made by House candidates, while the upper chamber failed to see its record of 26 women serving in the Senate surpassed. 

Currently, there are only 24 women serving in the upper chamber, accounting for less than a quarter of the 100-member body. Women make up a slightly larger percentage of House members, with 120 women in its ranks so far, comprising roughly 26.9 percent of the chamber, according to CAWP. And those percentages get even smaller when the numbers are broken down by race.

DeLauro currently heads the House Appropriations Committee with Rep. Kay Granger (Texas), the panel’s top Republican. Granger previously made history several years ago, when she along with since-retired Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) became the first two women to lead the House panel at the time. 

Together, the two top chairs in both committees are often referred to as the “Four Corners,” and work in tandem on the government’s yearly appropriations bills.

If Murray and Collins assume the top two spots on the panel in 2023, and Granger and DeLauro hold on to their seats, it would be the first time in history the Four Corners would be made up entirely of women members.

Members typically move up in the Senate Appropriations Committee by way of seniority, but in the House, Republicans can be known to challenge for gavels. However, Granger is also respected in the party.     

“It’s very interesting. The first time that there would be four women in the Four Corners,” Collins said enthusiastically. “I think it’s great.”

Mike Lillis contributed.

Tags Barbara Mikulski Kay Granger Lisa Murkowski Nita Lowey Patrick Leahy Patty Murray Richard Shelby Rosa DeLauro Susan Collins

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