WASHINGTON – Who doesn't like babies?
That question quietly wound through back channels in the Senate this week after a proposal to allow tiny humans, the progeny of senators, into the tradition-bound, male-dominated chamber. The inspiration is a small bundle named Maile Pearl, born April 9 to Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth – now the only sitting senator in U.S. history to give birth.
Teleworking is not an option in the Senate, which requires members to vote in-person. So Duckworth raised a rare question that split her colleagues more along generational lines than well-worn partisan ones, according to interviews Wednesday. Duckworth proposed changing the rules to allow senators with newborns – not just Duckworth, and not just women – to bring their babies onto the floor of the Senate. This, recalls Sen. Amy Klobuchar, did not go entirely smoothly for the two months she privately took questions about the idea and its potential consequences – diaper changes, fussing and notably, nursing. More than one senator joked that those things happen on the Senate floor now.
The proposal, which could get a vote this week, marks another moment for an institution that, at times, seems to relish its resistance to change. But with 23 women serving in Senate, some 70 percent of mothers working in the United States and a midterm election looming, no senator was willing to publicly declare he or she was a "nay" on babies.
But, there were concerns.
"I'm not going to object to anything like that, not in this day and age," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., father of three and grandfather of six. He then noted that a person can stand in the door of the cloakroom, a lounge just off the chamber, and vote. "I've done it," he said. Allowing babies on the Senate floor, he said, "I don't think is necessary."
The concerns, Klobuchar said, came mostly from older senators, and mostly from men.
"It is a big change," Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a telephone interview Wednesday, as leaders of both parties sought to pass the new rule without objection. The discussion, though, she said, "has been going on for weeks."
Sen. Tom Cotton, father of two, said he has no problem with the rule change. But the Arkansas Republican acknowledged that some of his colleagues do, "so the cloakroom might be a good compromise."
Klobuchar's answer to that suggestion noted that Duckworth is a double-amputee who lost both legs and partial use of an arm in Iraq, and mostly gets around by wheelchair.
"Yes, you can vote from the doorway of the cloakroom, but how is she going to get to the cloakroom when it's not wheelchair accessible?" she asked. Some senators proposed making an exception for Duckworth. But her allies said the Senate should make work easier for new parents. "We believe strongly, and she did, that it should be a permanent rules change."
But there still were concerns.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, the father of six, grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of 23, said he had "no problem" with such a rules change. "But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?" he asked.
"We could only wish we had 10 babies on the floor. That would be a delight," retorted Klobuchar, noting that such a conflagration would probably mean more young senators had been elected in a body where the average age of members tops 60.
There was more, voiced privately, Klobuchar said – including whether Duckworth intended to change Maile's diaper or nurse her new baby on the Senate floor.
Most senators, though, have been supportive, Klobuchar said. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., both fathers, have been supportive. McConnell did not answer a reporter's question Wednesday about whether he had any concerns about babies on the Senate floor.
Several others were happy to voice support for the rules change, and could not resist taking a jab at their colleagues.
"Why would I object to it? We have plenty of babies on the floor," joked Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
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