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Sen. Mikulski To Spend Rest Of Her Term 'Sizzling With Advocacy'

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear next from a political fighter getting ready to leave the ring. Senator Barbara Mikulski has served longer than any woman in the history of Congress, 28 years in the Senate and 10 in the House before that. The Maryland Democrat recently announced that she will not run for reelection in 2016.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mikulski has a ferocious reputation as a legislator. And she's making it clear she is not done yet. This week, she's fired up over the letter, signed by 47 Republican senators, directed to the leaders of Iran.

MONTAGNE: The letter was spearheaded by Tom Cotton, a freshman Republican from Arkansas. And it calls into question President Obama's authority to make a nuclear deal with Iran.

SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI: There is a pattern here of acting like Barack Obama isn't president and like we don't even have a president at all - that we can all engage in this kind of temper tantrum politics. Literally, the Senator from Arkansas was bringing the behavior and tactics of the House to the United States Senate. I wonder what Bob Dole would have done. I wonder what Howard Baker would have done. I wonder what John Warner would have done. I don't think they would have done this. They would have said, young man, let's let this practice unfold. And I'm deeply concerned that 46 senators, many of whom should know better, signed that letter.

MONTAGNE: It's interesting that when you announced that you were retiring, that you announced it - probably because you'd rather, as you said, rather than raise money, you'd rather spend your time raising hell, which is a little different than some of your colleagues in the Senate who have announced retirement saying they were leaving because they couldn't get a lot done. You were alluding to this different obstacle, which is what it takes to raise the money to campaign and win an election.

MIKULSKI: Well, I've said, who was I going to campaign for? Was I going to campaign for me or for the people of Maryland, who I so love and so appreciate the trust that they've sent in me? And then, I want these next 20 months to just sizzle with advocacy for making sure that I'm worried about their future, their job, increasing their income. Now, let's talk about the money, though, because it's not only the money that we have to raise as candidates. But it's the outside groups, the outside influence, the tremendous amounts of money that are spent against candidates before they even have a primary opponent. It takes wiser heads than me, experts on the First Amendment, who really then take a look at how we can reform campaign finance so we continue to be the greatest institution, where we are un-bought and un-bossed.

MONTAGNE: You have acquired a few choice descriptions of you based on how when you want to get something done, you can be tough, relentless. And, as I say, there's some choice descriptions of that, one that's almost charming since you are small. You've been called a little general in pearls. What do you think when you hear those things?

MIKULSKI: I think they got it right. I think they got it right. I am a fighter. And when you're going to fight, you have to be specific. You have to be tenacious. You have to be insistent and persistent. And that's what it takes to get the job done.

MONTAGNE: Well, when you came to the Senate almost 30 years ago, you were just one of two women in the chamber. You got rid of the skirts-only rule for women in the Senate. That was an accomplishment. You know, pants became acceptable. But there are now 20 women in the Senate. Just a last question, what advice have you offered women who've come in after you?

MIKULSKI: When I was elected to the Senate so many years ago, I was the first Democratic woman elected in her own right. I didn't want to be the first and only. I wanted to be the first of many. And that's why I joined hands with groups to get more Democratic women elected in the Senate. But for the women who come here to the Senate, I try to run workshops on how to be a success in the Senate. What does it take to get on the right committee? How do you move your first amendment? How do you move your first bill? And mine is really a nuts-and-bolts set of advice because when we come here, we come here not only to represent our states; but a lot of weight is on our shoulders. When I came, I got letters from all over America from women, where I became their senator. So my advice is always stay close to your constituents. And make sure you learn the rules of the game and play better and harder than everybody else.

MONTAGNE: Senator Mikulski, thanks very much.

MIKULSKI: Bye now.

MONTAGNE: Barbara Mikulski is a Democratic Senator from Maryland who's announced she will retire at the end of next year, after serving longer than any other woman in the history of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.