WASHINGTON — As the government shutdown dragged on, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was spending another weekend on Capitol Hill, staring at C-SPAN on her Senate office television as one colleague after another came to the floor to rail about the shuttered government.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Collins, a Republican, two Saturdays ago quickly zipped out a three-point plan that she thought both parties could live with, marched to the Senate floor and dared her colleagues to come up with something better. A few days later, two other Republican female senators eagerly signed on: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who overcame the tea party to win re-election in 2010, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who benefited from the tea party wave.
Together the three women started a bipartisan group whose negotiating framework formed the centerpiece of a tentative Senate deal Monday.
"Before I went to the Senate floor, no one was presenting any way out," Collins said. "I think what our group did was pave the way, and I'm really happy about that."
In a Senate still dominated by men, women on both sides of the partisan divide proved to be the driving forces that shaped a negotiated settlement. The three Republican women put aside threats from the right to advance the interests of their shutdown-weary states and asserted their own political independence.
"I probably will have retribution in my state," Murkowski said. "That's fine. That doesn't bother me at all. If there is backlash, hey, that's what goes on in D.C., but in the meantime there is a government that is shut down. There are people who are really hurting."
Two powerful women on the Democratic side of the aisle — Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington — pressed their Republican counterparts to temper their demands, but they also offered crucial points of compromise.
The five senators starkly showed off the increasing power of women in the upper chamber. Of the 13 senators on a bipartisan committee who worked on the deal framework, about half were women, even though women make up only 20 percent of the Senate. Sen. John McCain of Arizona joked at several points in their meetings, "The women are taking over."
Sen. Joe Manchin, Collins' first Democratic collaborator, said: "That gender mix was great. It helped tremendously." He added: "Would it have worked as well if it had been 12 women or 12 men? I can't say for sure, but it worked pretty well with what we had."
"Where we find ourselves right now is unacceptable for America," Ayotte said. "It's unacceptable as leaders that have been elected by the people of this country. We owe it to our constituents to resolve this now."