How these two women guided the Keystone bill through a divided Senate

GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell, even though they disagreed on the outcome, shepherded the Keystone pipeline bill through a divided Senate with trust and good-faith negotiations. 

Left: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Right: Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
Left: Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, confers with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. (not shown) on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 8, just before a markup on the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline bill. Right: Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) appears at a news conference after voting on amendments on the pipeline bill on January 29

In a rare moment for the US Senate, the two lawmakers who had just spent three weeks steering the Keystone pipeline bill through choppy waters were chatting amiably on the floor during the final vote. One was dressed in a teal-colored jacket and skirt. The other wore a silver pendant with her sky-blue blazer.  

Senators can remember only a handful of times when two women have acted as “floor managers” of bills in the Senate – and certainly not in such a high-profile circumstance as this one.

 In what seemed like a page in the chamber’s history, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, the chairman of the Energy Committee, and Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington, the committee’s ranking member, shepherded the first big piece of legislation to come out of the new GOP-controlled Senate – a testament to the increased influence of women in that body.

 Their presence and style – respectful, patient, trusting, goal-oriented – made a big difference, their colleagues say.

“The results speak for themselves,” says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who recalls twice joining with another female senator to take legislation from start to finish on the floor. Speaking of the Keystone managers, she says, “They had a collaborative relationship that was very helpful.”

That’s an understatement.

Keystone, which passed with the support of nine Democrats, was not just about whether to build a pipeline carrying tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico – and whether supporters could find enough votes to overturn a promised presidential veto (they didn’t).

It also tested the pledge by the new Senate Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to restore the chamber to a deliberative body – to unlock gridlock by allowing free-wheeling debate and equal access to amendments.

Senator Murkowski and Senator Cantwell navigated nearly 250 amendments. They steered safely through political storms. Last week, Democrats accused Republicans of shutting down debate at the midnight hour. This week, Republicans accused Democrats of stalling with filibusters. When Tuesday dawned, the outlook for comity – and the bill itself – appeared dark.

Aides close to the process say it was the pragmatic, respectful, and honest negotiating style of the floor managers – and of their staffs, both headed by women – that got them through these three weeks with flying colors.

When Democrats brought things to a standstill at the end of the day on Monday, the floor managers met face-to-face Tuesday morning. They negotiated until they came up with a package of 18 amendments that satisfied both sides.

“Murkowski said to Cantwell: ‘What do your members need? What do they need to vote on to move forward?” says Robert Dillon, communications director for the Energy Committee.

Whether Democrats wanted to use their amendments for substantive issues or for messaging purposes – that is, votes that would make Republicans look bad in a 30-second sound bite – “that was their prerogative,” Mr. Dillon says.

Cantwell also wanted to find a way forward.

“Maria brought a style of wanting to sit down, figure out the differences, and come up with solutions, rather than running out to the hall to make loud pronouncements,” says Jared Leopold, spokesman for Cantwell.

What resulted was an environment of trust that the negotiations were going on in good faith, that there would be no surprises, Dillon recalls. They set a tone that bodes well for future committee work – both women want to work on a comprehensive energy bill – and for the Senate as a whole.

That Murkowksi and Cantwell “have been able to maintain good relations and get through this is a testament to both of them and why we’d like to see more women in the Senate,” says Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota.

Twenty women now hold Senate seats. True, that’s the same as before the election, but the makeup is different. Republicans, weak on this score, added two female newcomers, giving them a total of six women. Democrats lost two, reducing their count to 14. The more evened-out the numbers get, the more opportunities for women working across the aisle. In 2000, only nine women were serving in the Senate.

“There’s been a lot more bipartisanship among women in the Senate,” observes Senate historian Donald Ritchie.

He lists several contributing factors: similar life stories, a balancing act with children that’s not necessarily the same for men, a tendency to sympathize with each other and to socialize together outside of work. Senate women from both parties meet for dinner  six-to-seven times a year.

In her remarks after the Keystone vote, Murkowski spoke proudly of the fact that most of the Senate’s work took place “during daylight hours” instead of starting votes around dinner time. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I call the family in for dinner, you kind of expect this is dinner time.”

The two women certainly have their differences, which can be as wide as the tundra when it comes to energy policy.

Murkowski, for instance, wants to open the oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drillers. She was irate after President Obama’s recent announcement to protect millions of refuge acres as wilderness – effectively walling them off from exploration.

In 2005, Cantwell waged floor fights with Ted Stevens – the former senator from Alaska – against drilling in the Arctic refuge. She’s big on clean-energy tax credits and moving toward a clean-energy economy.

But the two also have much in common and work well together.

They both come from western, ocean-facing states whose economies are intertwined with activities such as fishing. They’ve worked together in many areas, from ice-breaking ships to hydropower. Both have political fathers, and each woman knows what it’s like to squeak by in an election or even lose – and then come back through dogged persistence. A moderate streak also runs through their political outlooks.

In closing remarks, Murkowski expressed her delight with the outcome of the bill, even while Cantwell admitted she wasn’t “as excited about the passage of this legislation as my colleague.”

But as they praised each other’s efforts to manage the bill, it was clear they were both on the same team of civil debate, equal treatment, and forward movement.

When Murkowski announced that she would be rooting for the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl, that seemed to clinch it.

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