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For the first time, women will hold these four key congressional jobs

Women will lead the House and Senate appropriations committees in a highly contentious time. Will they do their jobs any differently than men might?

Barriers outside the U.S. Capitol. (Bloomberg Creative Photos/Bloomberg Creative)

In the discussions over the incoming leadership changes in Congress, one first has been overlooked: The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will all be women. As Republicans take over the House, Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas) and Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) will swap roles as chair and ranking member. In the Democratic-controlled Senate, committee chair Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) are both retiring, to be replaced by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

These four committee leadership positions, known to insiders as the “four corners,” matter enormously. They are the gatekeepers for funding and policy rider fights that shape the details of legislation — and therefore they will play key roles in determining the future of President Biden’s spending priorities and longer-term fights over deficits and entitlement spending such as Medicare and Social Security.

That’s especially true in this next legislative session, after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade — and during a period when the government’s leadership will be divided between Democrats and Republicans. Because control of Congress will be divided, House and Senate party leaders will have trouble getting their bills passed by the other body.

That means most real legislating will come on the must-pass appropriations bills that keep the government funded.

What should we expect from this new, all-female slate of leaders?

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Passing appropriations bills in a closely divided Congress will be extremely challenging

Political science research finds that government is most gridlocked — meaning least likely to pass significant legislation — when the House and Senate are controlled by different parties with competing agendas. With little hope of bipartisan compromises, House Republicans and Senate Democrats will focus on messaging bills that signal what the parties would do if they win full control of Congress in 2024.

But no matter what, Congress must pass appropriations bills to fund government. Since failing to pass these bills would shut down the government, the parties will fight over funding levels for major programs — and will try to attach policy riders, instructing government agencies to do things that cannot currently be passed as stand-alone bills.

That puts pressure on the “four corners” to cobble together bills that can win a Republican House majority and also win the backing of 60 senators to avoid a filibuster in the Democratic Senate.

Will the new women leaders handle their jobs differently?

In my research on women and Congress, I’ve found that female members of Congress are more likely than men to spend political capital on policies focused on women, children and families, such as health care. Both Murray and Collins have years of experience working on health care policy; Murray currently chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and Collins previously led the Special Committee on Aging.

In the House, Rosa L. DeLauro has long championed gender equity. In the 1990s, she, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) used their influence on the Appropriations Committee to get the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to invest in women’s health research at a time when women were largely excluded from clinical trials. DeLauro also champions pay equity.

For years, DeLauro and Murray have introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in their respective chambers, to strengthen equal pay laws. The two also worked together to secure an expanded child tax credit in Biden’s pandemic stimulus bill.

Of course, women bring their expertise to a broad range of issues. Kay Granger’s primary focus has been national security. She was the first Republican woman to serve on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and has chaired that panel and the subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.

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Can these new leaders bridge the partisan divides?

Some observers believe women are consensus builders. Certainly, these women have some history of making bipartisan deals. For example, in 2013, Murray collaborated with Republican House Budget chair and later speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on a budget deal that prevented a government shutdown and set future spending guidelines. As a moderate Republican, Collins has been central to numerous bipartisan deals on issues ranging from budget showdowns to filibustering judges.

But just now, Republicans will control the House and Democrats the Senate by the slimmest of margins. Each side is likely to try to undermine the other, hoping to secure a larger majority in 2024. Leaders of strategically important committees are agents of their party caucuses. These women will be expected to lead the charge in the coming battles over government spending, including a looming conflict over raising the debt limit.

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Post-Roe abortion politics will complicate appropriations

Some of the fiercest fighting may come over abortion riders to appropriations bills. These have a long history, sometimes prompting brinkmanship over possible government shutdowns.

Even before Roe was overturned, as House appropriations chair, DeLauro tried to eliminate the Hyde amendment, which prohibits Medicaid funding for abortion, making it harder for low-income women to end pregnancies.

Murray has a long history of using her position to fight for reproductive rights, including pushing the FDA to approve Plan B emergency contraception and investigating health insurers accused of refusing to offer contraception at no cost, as mandated.

Among Republicans, both Collins, known to be pro-abortion rights, and Granger are more moderate on abortion. My research with Kelly Rolfes-Haase on abortion voting in the House finds that, early in her career, Granger supported some proposals that facilitated abortion access, although she has voted consistently against abortion as she advanced to leadership.

That matters, because House Republicans are eager to pass abortion restrictions. Republicans will likely vote on antiabortion messaging bills, like one to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. These won’t advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Many House Republicans will expect Granger to champion policy riders restricting abortion, abortion pills and over-the-counter contraception on those must-pass appropriations bills. She’ll also be expected to uphold long-standing riders like the Hyde amendment as well as riders restricting abortion access for women in the military.

All this will galvanize members who support or oppose abortion rights and their interest group allies, making it even harder for the committee and party leaders to negotiate a bipartisan compromise.

Moving the reproductive rights battle to an already contentious appropriations process will test these women leaders’ ability to keep the government funded.

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Michele L. Swers (@MicheleSwers) is a professor of American government at Georgetown University and author of “Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate” (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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