WASHINGTON – Although Republican women are scarce in the newly convened 116th Congress, they could punch above their weight.
Used to being outnumbered, female lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have a history of working collaboratively together.
That could help the 13 Republican women in the House adjust to both the loss of their party’s control and to their diminished ranks. Democrats took the House with help from a record-breaking 89 female members. By contrast, the number of Republican women dropped from 23 to the lowest number in a quarter century.
“There are just some incredibly deep friendships that some of my female colleagues have with others across the aisle,” said Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, the Republican who co-led the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues in the last Congress. “And I think we’ll still be able to get things done.”
Brooks, for example, has teamed up in the past with Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, to improve the nation’s ability to respond to a bioattack or disease outbreak.
After helping lead the women’s caucus with Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel of Florida, Brooks reached out to her to cosponsor successful legislation to protect young athletes from sexual abuse.
And Brooks has forged a bond with New York Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat on the House ethics panel Brooks chaired, which deals with difficult issues involving fellow lawmakers.
“Women have more of a tendency to focus on … What’s the goal? What’s the policy? How do we get this done?” said Brooks, whose staff is mostly female. “I think, overall, the women in Congress that I’ve dealt with have come at it from a much more pragmatic, less political, viewpoint to solving problems.”
That’s a sentiment shared by a majority of women in the 114th Congress interviewed by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University a few years ago. Women believed they were more likely than their male counterparts to work across party lines, less likely to focus on getting credit or other “ego trappings.”
Because women are still a minority in Congress, “you better stick together,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, told the center.
Debbie Walsh, the center’s director, said her favorite example of this is not a piece of legislation but the difference between the annual congressional baseball and softball games. While Republican men suit up against Democratic men on the baseball diamond, women of both parties band together to try to beat female news reporters at softball.
They also team up for more serious missions.
Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., has regularly led bipartisan groups of women to visit troops in Afghanistan for Mother’s Day. The women have delivered handmade cards to service members, discussed the challenges facing deployed mothers, and met with Afghan female police and soldiers.
Davis told the Center for American Women and Politics that the trips have multiple benefits.
“Not only the bonding amongst us, but we worked on bills together,” she said of those who have traveled together.
Two women who will have a chance to show how well they can collaborate are Reps. Kay Granger and Nita Lowey, The Texas Republican and the New York Democrat are taking over the top spots on the powerful House committee that writes the annual spending bills. It will be the first time women have led the House Appropriations Committee, or any other House panel of significant stature.
Walsh said the formal and informal ways that congressional women work together can build the relationships that are necessary in legislative bodies.
“It allows you not to demonize each other and just be able to have some conversations,” she said. “It may not solve all the problems, but it certainly can’t hurt.”