WASHINGTON -- Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski is set to become the first woman to chair the prestigious Senate Appropriations Committee, a position left open this week by the death of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye.
A Democrat, Mikulski was first elected to the Senate in 1986 after serving 10 years in the House. Last year, she became the longest-serving woman in Senate history.
With her ascendancy to the chairmanship of Appropriations, she enters a male-dominated realm that in the past has had sweeping power in deciding how federal dollars will be dispersed around the country.
"It is especially gratifying to be the first woman to lead this powerful committee," the 76-year-old lawmaker said in a statement. "I am grateful for this opportunity to fight for the day-to-day needs of the American people and the long-range needs of the nation."
Senate Democrats are expected to vote Thursday to make her appointment official.
With the death of Inouye on Monday at age 88, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy was in line to take over Appropriations, where he also is a member. But he announced Wednesday that he chose to remain as chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Leahy, a seven-term senator, said in a statement that continuing to chair the Judiciary Committee while "maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont."
That decision in part reflected the changing status of committees in Congress. Judiciary next year is expected to play a leading role in any legislation dealing with gun control or immigration, while Appropriations, which is responsible for drawing up annual federal spending bills, has seen its importance fade somewhat in recent years because of the inability of Congress to pass individual spending bills and restrictions on approving or disapproving special projects requested by lawmakers.
Mikulski, who is also now the longest-serving woman in Congress, attended the same Baltimore high school as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, and worked as a social worker before entering politics.
She won her Senate seat on her second try, and was awarded a seat on the Appropriations Committee. But while she has headed several subcommittees, appointment to full chairmanship had eluded her.
Mikulski would have been in line to take over the Intelligence Committee had Leahy moved to Appropriations. That would have allowed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who now heads the intelligence panel, to take over the Judiciary Committee.
Mikulski currently is third in line on the Appropriations Committee behind Leahy and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is expected to remain as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.