Though she stand at just 4' 11?, Sen. Barbara Mikulski packs a lot of "punch." Wednesday on the Senate floor, the tribute to "Barb" went on for more than three hours.
Thirty-plus senators delivered back-to-back speeches for the Democrat from Maryland. On Saturday, Mikulski became Congress' longest serving woman, with 12,858 days of service.
Today's speeches were part roast, part homage.
"People are sometimes afraid of her when she gets mad," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY., said. "She doesn't try to polish [her speeches]. That's not her. She speaks from the heart directly to the people, and she cares so much about them that it comes through."
"I remember when she was mugged a few years back, one evening outside her home in Baltimore. A man pushed her to the ground and grabbed her purse," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA said. "It was terrifying - for the mugger. He had no idea who he was dealing with. At four-foot-eleven, Senator Mikulski fought back and defended herself just like she defends the people she represents."
She "stands as one of the tallest United States senators and packs a punch way beyond her four-foot-eleven," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said. "We're proud to have her as a colleague and are in awe of her ability to galvanize action, which is what this institution should be all about."
Mikulski is affectionately known as the "dean of the women" in Congress.
When she came into office in the House, the gym was all-male, no women allowed. When she first arrived in the Senate, there was only one other woman serving. In the years since, she's taken on a leadership role, bringing together women from both sides of the aisle for monthly dinners and conversations to promote civility.
"Senator Mikulski knows only one speed, and that is full speed ahead," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said. "But by the same token, she only knows one way to govern, through what she aptly refers to as a zone of civility. That approach, so integral to making this institution work, is indisputably one of the hallmark measures of Senator Mikulski's long-standing success in public life."
"One day soon, a woman will sit in the Oval Office of this great country," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, "and when she does, she will owe a great deal to Barbara Mikulski."
But many said that Mikulski's work opening doors for women should not define her legacy. They said she should be remembered for above everything else being a fighter.
"Following the election of a number of esteemed women into the Senate, a lot of reporters deemed 1992 as the year of the woman," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. Mikulski replied, Durbin added, by countering, "'Calling 1992 the year of the woman makes it sound like the year of the caribou or the year of the asparagus. We're not a fad, fancy or a year.'
"That was typical Barbara Mikulski," he added.
"No one is better at drilling down to the heart of an issue and expressing it in punchy, unforgettable terms," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said. "No one cheers us up more than Barbara when she tells us to stand tall, square our shoulders, put on our lipstick and rise to the occasion. We don't all put on lipstick, but we all get the message."
A humbled Mikulski, with her family by her side, took to the floor and said she never started out wanting to be a "historic figure," and that she had thought about being a doctor, social worker or even a Catholic nun when she was growing up.
"But that vow of obedience kind of slowed me down a little bit," she joked.
The honor of this milestone is just one of many firsts. Mikulski was the first female Democrat to be elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate. And last year she became the longest serving female senator.
Today there are 17 women serving in the Senate and 76 women in the House.