WASHINGTON (AP) - One by one, Republicans and Democrats recognized a singular achievement by a singular woman _ Sen. Barbara Mikulski, now the longest-serving female member of Congress.
The Maryland Democrat reached that milestone this past Saturday. So on her 12,892 day in Congress Wednesday, senators stood on the floor to pay tribute to the 75-year-old from Baltimore with a series of speeches about her tenacity, feistiness, dedication and even the time she won over a Texas crowd at a steer auction.
"She gave voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
"I love Barbara Mikulski. I love her because she calls me Franken," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who called her a "just a force, a force of nature."
Mikulski was elected to the House in 1976 and won her Senate seat in 1986. She moved into the history books by surpassing former Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, a Massachusetts Republican who was the longest serving-member of the House. When Mikulski arrived in Washington, there were 19 women in Congress. Today, there are 74 women in the House and 17 in the Senate.
The 4-foot-11 former social worker has looked out for her state as a member of the Appropriations Committee and has been a tough advocate for NASA and space programs. She has favored abortion rights and pushed for health care coverage. In 2000, she was part of the book "Nine and Counting," as the women of the Senate wrote about their obstacles and experiences in politics. The proceeds from the book went to the Girl Scouts of America.
In the middle of the speeches, Mikulski acknowledged the praise with a mix of humor, self-deprecation and appreciation for those who helped her. She recalled her father, who ran a grocery store, and the nuns who taught her.
"I even thought about being a Catholic nun, but that vow of obedience kind of slowed me down a little bit," Mikulski said.
With her family, former Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley listening in the Senate chamber, Mikulski reflected on her achievement.
"I didn't start out wanting to be an historic figure. ... For me, it's not how long I serve. It's not about history. ... The fact is that when I wanted to grow up, I wanted to be of service," she said.
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison recalled how Mikulski thrilled the Texas crowd during a joint trip to the steer auction.
"She put on her cowboy hat and she rode in the grand entry on a buckboard (wagon), and she became an honorary Texan in our hearts," Hutchison said.
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