WASHINGTON - On the face of it, one of the most powerful pairings in Washington is a hopeless mismatch — a former social worker and liberal Democrat from Baltimore's working-class Fells Point neighbourhood and an old-school, cigar-chomping GOP conservative raised in a dry county in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.
But in a bitterly divided Congress, the odd couple of Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Harold Rogers is a rare bipartisan success story.
Mikulski and Rogers are chiefly responsible for divvying up $1 trillion in federal spending as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the same committee in the House. While their personal backgrounds could hardly be more different, their operating styles are remarkably similar.
Both are pragmatists in a Congress littered with ideologues. Neither minces words or tolerates foolishness. Both prefer deal-making to speechifying. And each understands that in order to strike a deal the other side needs to claim some wins.
"Hal is a conservative but he is not a hard-headed ideologue. He's a realist," said former Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. "He's good at saying, 'Look, I'll level with you. This is what I can do and this is what I can't do.'"
Mikulski has a reputation for toughness though her once-fearsome temper seems to have mellowed in recent years. "Her BS quotient is very, very low. She doesn't tolerate BS and she doesn't dish it out," Obey said. "She is very pragmatic, very hard-nosed."
Rogers and Mikulski face an enormously difficult task: advancing 12 spending bills setting the annual operating budgets for federal agencies and most government programs, ranging from funding the armed forces and overseas military operations to air traffic control, the national parks and forecasting the weather.
House and Senate leaders used to give great deference to the committees but their standing has slipped of late. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was a longtime Appropriations Committee insider but has usually given short shrift to the panel's pleas for floor time to debate its bills. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, barely hid his disdain for the panel's parochial, clubby ways during his first two decades in the House. One of his first acts as speaker was to impose a ban on popular home-district pet projects known as earmarks.
The result is that many lawmakers have less reason to vote for spending bills. The appropriations process is a challenge in good years. Amid broader battles over taxes and whether to expand or shrink the government, it has been derailed in recent ones.
Boehner, for example, sided with the GOP's tea party wing in 2013 and saddled Rogers with a budget outline that pleased conservatives but shortchanged domestic programs and doomed appropriators to failure last summer. Rogers could only watch as tea party forces steamrolled House leaders into a government shutdown last fall.
What eventually came out of it was a two-year budget deal that paved the way for Rogers and Mikulski to get the process back on track. In January they accomplished several months' worth of work in a few weeks, negotiating and winning passage of a $1.1 trillion catchall spending bill for 2014.
Jim Dyer, a former Republican staff director for House appropriators, said Rogers and Mikulski were under a lot of pressure to reach a deal that could pass both houses. "If they had failed, people would have thrown the last shovel of dirt on appropriations," Dyer said. "Now, what you have is ... the only show in town currently working well — and these two people deserve the credit."
With a strengthened hand and a common spending ceiling for 2015, the two appropriations chairmen are off to a promising start, handling this year's spending bills the old-fashioned way, with open debate and amendments instead of waiting until year's end and cobbling together one massive omnibus bill behind closed doors.
Mikulski first bill was slated to hit the Senate floor Tuesday — a hybrid Mikulski cobbled together from three measures funding the departments of Commerce, Justice, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture. The Senate is likely to spend most of two weeks on it. The House is scheduled to open debate Wednesday on Rogers' spending bill for the Pentagon.
"She's determined to get the train back on track with appropriations, as am I," Rogers said of Mikulski. "To do that you have to understand the other side's point of view and perspective and needs, politically to get the bills passed on the floors of both bodies."
Mikulski says her approach is "to focus with civility and courtesy. Old school values. Don't do surprises or stunts and negotiate directly and not through the press."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell describes Mikulski as forceful and results oriented. "I think she's terrific."
"She is no nonsense ... and that really gives her the credibility to work with her colleagues that other people wish they had," said former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.
Mikulski is more engaging and approachable than her predecessors as appropriations chairman, the late Sens. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. She's spent decades honing relationships with members of both parties, learning their needs and end goals.
"She knows that if you know somebody and what they want you can help them be successful. And when you help people be successful, Republicans or Democrats, that's how you move bills," said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a Mikulski protege.