Mikulski expected to run for Senate leadership post

April 22, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, in a move to increase her power and influence on Capitol Hill, is expected to seek one of the Senate's three elected leadership positions in the Congress that takes office in January.

The Maryland Democrat, who has gained considerable power and influence in seven years as a senator, says she is "inclined to run" -- and talks as if she is running -- for secretary of the Democratic Conference, made up of all the Democratic senators.

"I haven't finalized my plans," she said in an interview. "I expect to do that over the next 24 hours. But I'm really inclined to run."

A formal announcement could come next week, she said. A source close to the senator said there is no doubt that the 57-year-old Baltimorean would seek the post.

For Maryland, Ms. Mikulski said, her selection as secretary of the conference would mean "power and prestige within the institution . . . and helps move the Maryland agenda."

And, she added, "it keeps the attention of the executive branch when you are articulating the Maryland agenda."

Although few women have served in the Senate, Ms. Mikulski would not be the first to fill an elected leadership position. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine headed the Republican Conference from 1967 to 1972, at a time when the GOP was the minority party, according to Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian.

Ms. Mikulski would be the first woman in an elected leadership position of the party that controls the Senate, assuming that the Republicans do not gain control in November.

There are now 56 Democratic senators, and the party is expected to maintain its majority in November, though it may lose a few seats. If Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland is re-elected in November, and the Democrats control the Senate next year, Maryland would have the strongest Senate delegation it has had in years. Mr. Sarbanes is in line to become chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and would be the first Maryland senator in four decades to head a major committee.

In addition, Ms. Mikulski heads the Appropriations subcommittee that handles about $88 billion in federal spending, including the budgets of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, NASA and the the Veterans Administration. She is also an assistant Democratic floor leader, an appointed post that she would give up if she were elected conference secretary, and she calls herself the "unofficial dean" of the five Democratic female senators. In 1986, Ms. Mikulski became the first Democratic woman to be elected to the Senate; she was joined by four more in 1992.

Ms. Mikulski would be running for a position held for six years by Sen. David A. Pryor of Arkansas, who said this week that he would not seek the post again. Mr. Pryor believes that leadership positions should be opened up periodically "to let some new blood in," said Damon Thompson, his press secretary.

Ms. Mikulski said she had not considered an elective leadership position until Mr. Pryor's announcement. "I was somewhat surprised," she added.

"I began to take some soundings," she said. "I found I have considerable support within the Democratic Conference." She would not discuss how many votes she might have lined up, saying it was premature.

Thus far, no senator has announced plans to run for the slot. Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana said Wednesday that he was thinking of seeking the position. Earlier this year, Mr. Breaux had been considered a candidate for majority leader to replace retiring Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine, but he dropped out of that race.

In an interview, Ms. Mikulski volunteered that the conference secretaryship has been a stepping stone to the Senate majority leadership, a powerful post that controls the the flow and timing of legislative action. She observed that Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a former majority leader, was secretary to the conference at one time.

Mr. Byrd is a crafty veteran of 35 years in the Senate who gave up the leadership post to become chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He took Ms. Mikulski under his wing after her election in 1986, helped her get a seat on his committee and became her mentor.

Ms. Mikulski would not say whether she aspires to the majority leadership, observing only that "it could happen sometime."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.