Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and Lois Capps

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–At 30 years old, the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues is coming into full bloom.

Members of the women’s caucus gathered Jan. 23 at a gavel-passing ceremony on Capitol Hill to honor its new leaders, Democrat Lois Capps of California and Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state.

With a woman–and a former member of the caucus–now serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives, members and leaders say they are more empowered than ever to advance an agenda that caters to women. Items on their wish list include women’s health, educational equity, sex trafficking, women in business, women in prison and international domestic violence.

"We now have leadership that is with our issues fully and completely," Capps cheered at the packed reception. "So when we want to do things that maybe our committee structure is not ready for, watch us!"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has chosen to observe custom and refrain from joining caucuses, which are groups of like-minded lawmakers who promote shared legislative goals.

But since she assumed power earlier this month, Pelosi has been working with members of the women’s caucus to discuss their agenda, giving the group unprecedented access to the highest rungs of House leadership.

"As our staff is planning, they’re planning with her office," Capps said. "And frankly, we didn’t have that access before."

Growth Spurt Expected

After the 2006 midterm elections, the women’s caucus has the potential to grow in size as well as stature.

Last November, a record 74 women (including three non-voting delegates) were elected to the House; if all join the caucus, it will be one of the largest legislative groups on Capitol Hill, with membership outnumbering other higher-profile groups such as the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of 44 fiscally conservative Democrats, and the New Democrat Coalition, a group of 63 pro-business Democrats.

The women’s caucus will also likely benefit from increased visibility this year, said Cindy Hall, president of Women’s Policy Inc., an independent nonprofit in Washington that works closely with the women’s caucus and is planning a gala in March to mark its 30th anniversary.

But Sarah Brewer, associate director of the Institute for Women and Politics at American University in Washington, D.C., sounded a note of caution. The bipartisan nature of the group–the most bipartisan on the Hill, as Capps called it–can be a curse as well as a blessing in an era of heightened partisanship and polarization, she said.

Membership is open to every female lawmaker in the House. With a potential for 53 Democratic members and 21 Republicans, members span the ideological and geographical spectrum and therefore may have a difficult time reaching agreement on controversial subjects. This is why the group has shied away from divisive issues such as abortion and reproductive rights, Brewer said.

The caucus is "faced with a lot of different cross-cutting challenges and then their own heterogeneity in the caucus," Brewer said.

Founded in 1977

Formerly known as the Congressional Women’s Caucus, the group was founded in 1977 by 15 lawmakers.

Hilda Solis

Reps. Elizabeth Holtzman, a New York Democrat, and Margaret Heckler, a Massachusetts Republican, served as founding co-chairs. Colorado Democrat Patricia Schroeder and Maine Republican Olympia Snowe served as co-chairs in 1983 and led the caucus together for a decade.

In 1981, members invited male colleagues to join. More than 100 men accepted the offer, and the group changed its name to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.

But in 1995, the newly elected Republican majority voted to eliminate funding for offices and staff of all caucus organizations on Capitol Hill. As a result, the women’s caucus changed from a taxpayer-subsidized legislative group to an informal coalition of female lawmakers. At that time, they decided to restrict membership to women alone. Lacking outside funding, the caucus has limped along without a full-time staff.

Pelosi has no plans to reinstate funding for any caucus groups, a Pelosi aide said.

No formal women’s caucus exists in the Senate, but the 16 female members of the body–11 Democrats and 5 Republicans–held their first formal meeting earlier this month. It was hosted by 70-year-old Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland and the unofficial dean of the Senate women because of her 20-year tenure.

Despite their small but growing numbers, congressional women in the House and Senate of both parties have joined forces to lobby for several significant laws.

These include the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which granted employees the right to take unpaid leave for personal or health reasons; the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which funded programs for victims of domestic and sexual violence; and other bills that increased funding for a range of programs such as breast cancer research, child care and small business loans.

Building on Past Achievements

Achievements have been more modest in recent years.

In the last Congress, many female members worked to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and championed resolutions honoring former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and condemning the disappearances and murders of more than 400 women in Juarez, Mexico.

This year, "the sky is the limit," Capps said.

Elected as co-chairs on Jan. 19, Capps and McMorris Rodgers hope to produce a "must-pass" agenda in the next few weeks, brainstorming with members about their legislative priorities.

Capps, a former nurse and health care advocate, has her heart set on a bill to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease and stroke in women. She also mentioned interest in women in prison and efforts to explore the link between the environment and breast cancer, and said there may be opportunities to work with the Bush administration on issues relating to women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McMorris Rodgers echoed an interest in women’s health and also spoke of efforts to promote math and science education among girls and women. She said that issue may come up during debate over the No Child Left Behind education law, which increased the standards of accountability in schools and is slated for a reauthorization vote this year.

The caucus leadership is also considering legislation that would outlaw discrimination from health insurers and others based on genetic information, fund a national study of children’s health, address sex trafficking and call for the need to end discrimination and violence against women around the world.

Meanwhile, Capps and McMorris Rodgers intend to continue a caucus tradition of honoring female members of the military around Memorial Day and plan to hold a second annual meeting with female judges to build relationships between women in the two government branches.

The caucus should have an easier time moving their own agenda this year, predicted Hilda Solis, a California Democrat who served as co-chair of the caucus in the 109th Congress.

"This is a new era," Solis said as she prepared to hand over the symbolic gavel at the Capitol Hill reception. Achieving legislative success, she said, will "absolutely" be easier than it was during her tenure, when the House was under the Republican rule of former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.