Connelly: Health care vote proves Senate women do heavy lifting

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: The Seattle Pi

The Washington, D.C., news media love John McCain: The Arizona senator's worship takes place in the studios of their Sunday talk shows, and he has traveled the presidential campaign trail in a "Straight Talk Express" bus full of reporters.

"The night John McCain killed the GOP's health-care fight," the Washington Post headlined after the Senate's 51-49 vote to reject Senate Republican leaders' latest and last bid to repeal and replace Obamacare. "John McCain's maverick moment," said CNN.

Dwelling on the moment, the capital media is losing a long term message of Thursday night's Senate drama.

Women are doing the heavy lifting and wearing the pants, or at least the pantsuits, in our nation's capital. 

To the extent that any common ground can be found,  or reasonable action is doable, they are doing it. They are also standing up to bullies, starting with the guy in the White House.

Two of the Senate's Republican "Gentle ladies," Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, stood their ground while McCain shifted.  They voted against even more awful proposals, the "Better Care Reconciliation Act" and the "Obamacare Reconciliation Act" which would have slashed health care coverage to as many as 32 million Americans.

Murkowski and Collins voted against confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, arguably the most awful Trump cabinet nominee.  A determined Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. built a nationwide movement against putting in office a Cabinet secretary bent on undermining public education.

What's going on? We can turn to the Seattle waterfront for an answer.

Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., recently did a bipartisan tour of a dry docked icebreaker on Harbor Island.  The U.S. has only one operational heavy duty icebreaker at a time when climate change is shrinking the Arctic ice pack.  Russia has or is building dozens.

Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Cantwell is its ranking Democrat.  The two have been vocal opposites on such topics as oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the huge proposed copper and gold mile near Bristol Bay.

Yet, both are adults. They have found issues -- an urgent need for icebreakers, modernizing the U.S. electrical grid -- where they can work together. They have cobbled together energy legislation in fields where they agree.

The "Gentle ladies" of the Senate are still able to collaborate, having monthly dinners and working on shared issues. 

The glass ceiling has yielded slowly.  When Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, ran for president in 1964, there were jokes about "throwing her bonnet in the ring." Sen. Barbara Mikulski, R-Maryland, in 1986 became the first female senator elected on her own -- without a spouse or parent preceding her. There are now 21 "Gentle ladies." 

How are they wearing the pants?  In different ways, and holding up traditions in need of rescue.  Disparate examples:

--Newly elected Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, dispensing with the usual bluster, has pushed aggressive questioning in the Senate Intelligence Committee, to John McCain's annoyance.  She is a former prosecutor and attorney general.

--Sen. Cantwell held up needed support for the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation, using her Senate Finance Committee seat to insist on creation of a consumer protection agency with teeth. Future Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was part of this battle.

--Sen. Murray, as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, bonded with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman (now House Speaker) Paul Ryan to get the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, ending for a time budget battles that threatened to shut down the government.

--Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, has pressed the Pentagon relentlessly -- and successfully -- to give priority to sexual assault in the military, independently investigate complaints, and treat seriously its victims.

--Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, has stage 4 kidney cancer, yet she like McCain came to Capitol Hill, and memorably turned to Republican colleagues ready to rip care away from millions.  "You showed me your care, you showed me your compassion," she said.  "Where is that tonight?"

Not all women in politics are paragons of wisdom.  Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, the Trump of her times, was Washington's last truly bad governor.  U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has boosted health legislation that would leave a half-million Washingtonians without health insurance, a substantial number in her district.

Nor is productive work easy in a political culture where attention is given to ceaseless posturing, from the Seattle City Council to Congress.

Just ask yourself:  How much ink or airtime as Sen. Murray received in her quarter-century effort to direct more federal research dollars to women's diseases?  Murray has been plugging at this since delivering her first Senate speech:  Its topic -- ovarian cancer.

Sen. Murkowski has been hit by a bullying tweet from President Trump, and possibly a silky threat to her state:  The federal government is a vastly important presence in Alaska.

In particular, it takes quiet courage to defy louts and bullies in your own party. All of 67 years ago, Margaret Chase Smith went on the Senate floor to deliver a "declaration of conscience" against the Red baiting demagoguery of GOP colleague Sen. Joe McCarthy.

In the era of Trump, a snippet from that speech deserves an audience today:

"I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny -- fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear."