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'We are the table': Meet the history-making women controlling the most powerful levers of U.S. government

From left, Collins, Murray, DeLauro and Granger are seen at an interview with CNN on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Thursday. (Carol Guzy for CNN) From left, Collins, Murray, DeLauro and Granger are seen at an interview with CNN on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Thursday. (Carol Guzy for CNN)
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When Susan Collins first arrived in the Senate in 1997, a male colleague approached her about committee assignments and assumed that the Maine Republican would want to serve on education and child care panels.

"I said, 'Yes, those are really important,'" Collins recalled. Then she told her colleague: "And I want to be on the Armed Services Committee."

It was seen as a bold ask at a time when there were only a handful of women serving in Congress, and they didn't even have their own bathroom yet, let alone coveted committee seats or powerful gavels. But more than 25 years later, Collins -- along with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas and Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut -- will hold the top spots on the Senate and House Appropriations committees, an influential crew on Capitol Hill commonly known as the "Four Corners."

That, combined with Shalanda Young heading up the Office of Management and Budget, means women will hold the purse strings in Washington for the first time in history. The powerful spending panels in Congress oversee an annual federal budget of roughly $1.7 trillion and are responsible for crafting policies that affect nearly every corner of American life.

"People would say, 'We have to give you a seat at the table.' Hell, we are the table," said DeLauro. "It's four of us here -- five with Shalanda Young -- who are controlling, really, the most powerful levers of government."

And with deadlines to fund the government and raise the nation's borrowing limit looming later this year, it will be up to these four women to pull the country back from the brink of fiscal calamity -- no easy task in a divided and hyper-polarized government, and with razor-thin majorities in both chambers.

"There's going to be hurdles thrown at us every single day, and we all recognize that. There's going to be people who try and keep us from being successful every single day," Murray said. "I have no doubt this is going to be one of the hardest things I've ever done since I've been here. What I feel good about is I have great partners on both sides of the Capitol and both sides of our caucuses."

In an exclusive joint TV interview, the quartet sat down with CNN to candidly discuss how they plan to approach their work, the pressure to prove women can do the job just as effectively -- if not better -- than their male counterparts, and why they think it's taken so long to crack the "boy's club" in Washington.

"It is a very special time that we're working together," said Granger, who was the first Republican woman to represent Texas in the US House of Representatives and the first female mayor of Fort Worth. "We've all worked together on different things. But this is a difference. I think it's going to be very important for young women to see us do this."

Women are already following in their footsteps. A young female staffer to Granger went on to also become Fort Worth mayor. And before taking the reins at OMB, Young -- the first Black woman to lead the agency -- was a top aide on the House Appropriations Committee, involved in key funding negotiations and respected by members on both sides of the aisle.

 

From the beauty shop to the center of power

 

Granger, 80, made history in 2019 with then-Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, when they both helmed the House Appropriations Committee. It was the first time a pair of women had led a congressional panel since 1977, when two female lawmakers oversaw the House Select Committee on the Beauty Shop, which supervised operations at the beauty salon in a House office building.

"It was never viewed that women could take on the issues of foreign policy, budget, finance, any of these areas," said DeLauro, 79. "It was the soft side of the government."

All of the Four Corners were elected in the 1990s, when women in Congress were still scarce. Murray, 72, recalled that her Senate class was known as the "Year of the Woman" -- and there were only six female senators following her election in 1992. She said men would treat her with trepidation when she was in the room.

Now the tables have turned, with a record number of women serving in office and holding key positions of power.

Murray recently became the first woman to serve as Senate president pro tempore, a senior position in the chamber that puts her third in line to the presidency.

"We wanted to create an opening for a male to be head of the Beauty Shop," Collins, 70, quipped about women climbing the ranks.

DeLauro, who is known for her colorful fashion choices and purple-streaked hair, then offered up a different idea for a committee the men could now lead: "The barber shop!"

 

The tough road ahead

 

With Nancy Pelosi stepping down from the top House leadership position in the Democratic Party, the "Big Four" congressional leaders are now all men.

Newly minted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy -- who oversees a paper-thin GOP majority that includes an emboldened right flank -- is demanding spending cuts in exchange for lifting the nation's debt ceiling, heightening the risk of a default and further complicating the work ahead for the Four Corners.

When asked if they could guarantee there would be no government shutdowns on their watch, Murray responded carefully, likely a recognition that some things are out of their control: "None of us want chaos. All of us want our families and our communities and our businesses and the people we represent to know that they can go to work, take care of their families and know we're here at work doing what needs to be done."

The group feels a sense of responsibility to show that negotiations can be successful, with collegiality, camaraderie and compromise -- and not the bluster and brinkmanship that has defined past funding fights. DeLauro and Granger already have two years of experience working together atop the House spending panel.

With Republicans taking control of the House earlier this month, Granger is now chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee and DeLauro the ranking Democrat. Murray will become chairwoman of Senate Appropriations Committee with Collins as the ranking Republican.

"There's maybe not this sense that you have to outdo or outshine or so forth. We know what has to get done," DeLauro said. "And we want to make sure that we're giving each other the strength to do it."

"We can be tough, and we can be nice," Murray added.

Collins concurred: "We can be both at the same time."

Decades working in government, they say, has illuminated some differences between how male and female legislators tend to operate.

"Women, they're good listeners. And you learn a lot by listening, not just talking," Granger said. "We do share information about what we're doing, which is very helpful."

Those differences are especially apparent when it comes to how female lawmakers feel more pressure to do their homework.

"Every woman legislator that I know takes a thick briefing book home every single night," Collins said. "And I remember (former Tennessee Republican) Sen. Fred Thompson ... once saying to one of our male colleagues: 'Susan has a secret. She prepares.'"

Other differences are more literal. Murray said her plush office space in the Capitol -- one of the perks of her senior position -- used to be occupied by men who smoked cigars.

She's glad it no longer is.

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