Hilda Solis

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The 109th Congress, just one month old, is already shaping up as a polarized one as Democrats prepare to do battle with a Republican president who is under no political imperative to tack to the center and conservative leaders who rule expanded majorities in the House and Senate.

The small group of women in the House and Senate has nonetheless begun to carve out a bipartisan agenda focused on women for the next two years. They hope to move this agenda through Congress in the legislative downtime that will come between higher-profile fights over theadministration’s plans to trim the federal budget by cutting social programs and extending tax cuts, create private accounts as part of Social Security, and appoint social conservatives to the federal bench and, possibly, to the Supreme Court.

The 68 women in the House of Representatives, 45 of whom are Democrats (including three non-voting members) and 23 of whom are Republicans, got started on their bipartisan agenda earlier this month when many gathered to elect a new leadership team to head their caucus and to take their first steps toward fashioning a shared women-centric agenda for the 109th Congress. No formal women’s caucus exists in the Senate, but the 14 female members of the body–9 Democrats and 5 Republicans–kicked off the upcoming year last week during an informal dinner. It was the first of what they hope will be monthly meetings to formulate a common agenda and get to know one another.

“For women, I’m very optimistic,” said Rep. Hilda Solis, a California Democrat who was elected on Feb. 2 to serve as co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.

Women Working Across Party Lines

Women lawmakers indeed have a good history of working across party lines to move a shared agenda. Since 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman” when Congress saw a surge of new female lawmakers, women banded together to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, which granted employees the right to take unpaid leave for personal or health reasons; the Violence Against Women Act, which funded programs for victims of domestic violence; and other bills that have increased funding for a range of programs in areas such as breast cancer research, child care and lending to small businesses.

Women also managed to score some key victories in the GOP-controlled 108th Congress, Solis noted. Last year, for example, Congress passed legislation that authorized funding for rape-testing kits for women in the military and established a national standard and provided funding for the collection of DNA evidence in backlogged rape cases.

This session, Solis said, prospects are good that some bipartisan measures of concern to women will win the president’s signature. That is largely because of the political dynamics in midterm election years, when, she explained, lawmakers tend to be more willing to buck their party lines and reach compromise.

“I think it’s going to be a good year because we’re out from under the presidential” race, agreed Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican and former co-chair of the women’s caucus. “It was just so political” during the 108th Congress. “We don’t have that edge” this year.

Women lawmakers as a result are confident they will win at least a few victories this Congress.

For starters, they point to the Violence Against Women Act, which was first enacted in 1994 and has “very good odds” of winning reauthorization early this year, according to Capito. Women hope to improve the law with proposals that would allow abused women to take unpaid leaves from work and boost federal funding to pay for expanded prevention programs aimed at children, provide more shelters for survivors and give health care providers better training, according to the National Organization for Women, a nonprofit women’s rights organization in Washington, D.C.

In addition, women hope to clarify and stiffen sexual assault policies at the Pentagon. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation earlier this month that she hopes will “send a strong message to the Defense Department that Congress is serious about updating the military’s sexual assault statute, and that the changes are expected to incorporate the U.S. federal code.”

Republican and Democratic women are also working out the details of legislation aimed at preventing international sex trafficking, protecting retirement pensions, increasing lending to small businesses and promoting women and girls in math and science, Solis said. Female lawmakers also plan to push for an extension of authorized funding for rape-testing kits for women in the military in the hopes that it will become a standard policy at the Department of Defense.

In the meantime, women plan to continue to mentor Iraqi and Afghan women interested in politics, a project they undertook in the 108th Congress in advance of democratic elections in those countries, according to an aide to Virginia Brown-Waite, a Florida Republican who co-chairs the women’s caucus. Women may also find common ground on issues such as health coverage for the uninsured, election reform, and possibly on more controversial issues such as restoring funding for family planning clinics abroad and emergency contraception, other sources said.

Little Chance of Becoming Law

But in a Congress led by conservatives and controlled by Republicans, many priorities favored by Democrats have little chance of becoming law. Indeed, women’s rights activists–many of whom identify with the Democratic Party–will face an uphill battle opposing legislation they view as detrimental to women, such as efforts to cut funding for social programs that aid women, extend the administration’s tax cuts and fend off possible attempts to pass the Constitutional ban of same-sex marriages.

It’s going to be “a very tough year,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who chaired the women’s caucus in the 107th Congress.

Republicans have already announced plans to continue to try to chip away at reproductive rights, a fight that will probably reach its apex when one of the sitting Supreme Court justices announces his or her retirement. President Bush has already reappointed a number of socially conservative nominees to the federal bench, a move many interpreted as a sign of his intention to appoint similarly conservatives judge to the high tribunal.

In the meantime, the emboldened anti-choice factions in the House and Senate will push to further restrict reproductive rights with a measure that would make it a crime to circumvent state parental consent laws by taking a minor across state lines for an abortion. Another proposal would require women who seek mid- or late-term abortions to acknowledge in writing that the fetus has the capacity to experience pain from the procedure. If passed, the measures will follow passage of anti-choice legislation in the 108th Congress, including the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act and the law that made injuries to fetuses in violent offenses federal crimes.

“We have fewer members in both houses that are reliable supporters of women’s rights and civil rights and human needs programs,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “Generally, it’s either bad news or we’re fighting something bad but we think we might win.”

She was referring in particular to the looming battle over Social Security.

Republicans have already launched a campaign to allow workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts, a plan women’s rights activists maintain will undermine women’s ability prepare for retirement. Conservative women’s groups disagree, noting that private accounts will ensure that Social Security remains solvent into the future. Women, who comprise the majority of beneficiaries, will benefit from an ability to grow their accounts in the stock market, according to Carrie Lukas, a scholar at the conservative Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C.

“The next four years will be a challenge for all who believe in equality and justice,” Gandy said in a statement timed to coincide with President Bush’s Jan. 20 State of the Union address. “But we will not be shut down.”

Allison Stevens is Women’s eNews’ Washington Bureau Chief.

For more information:

Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis–
Solis and Brown-Waite Co-Chair Women Caucus:

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