WASHINGTON - Last month, most of the 20 women who will serve in the Senate next year gathered at the Capitol for a meet-and-greet -- and a show of strength. Although it was a moment of celebration marking a historic number of women in the highest echelons of power, the meeting produced another milestone: "For the first time, there was a traffic jam in the Senate women's bathroom," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Ladies' room backups aside, some are wondering whether the record-breaking number of women will mean less gridlock, not more.
Women are more collaborative and collegial leaders, studies have found. And for those bemoaning the Senate's increasing polarization, it may mean the chances for an antidote have just increased. "We women set the tone for civility and respect on Capitol Hill," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chamber's longest-serving woman. "We want to carry that tone of civility with us in an otherwise prickly institution."
It's not that the Senate's women are less formidable than their male counterparts. Mikulski is known for her plain-speaking manner, and leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Washington's Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- haven't been afraid to throw an elbow.
But during a group interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer set to air Jan. 3, the 19 female senators and senators-elect who were present agreed with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, when she said, "I think if we women were in charge of the Senate and of the administration, we would have a budget deal by now."
In the House, a record 78 women will serve in the next Congress. But the effect in the smaller and more personality-driven Senate may be more evident: All six female senators facing reelection won, and five women are members of the freshman class.
"I think this is the most consequential aspect of the election," said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. "Women bring to the Senate an energy and a perspective and a potential for bipartisanship."
For years, women in both parties have met regularly for dinners. Every few months, they meet in the Capitol's Strom Thurmond Room, the irony of which isn't lost on them. Their gathering spot is named for a man whose parting words to the Senate were, "I love all of you, and especially your wives."
Over glasses of wine and sometimes a pie baked by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., they discuss their worlds -- kids, husbands, books, vacation plans.
They buy presents to celebrate milestones. The dynamic mimics the storied conviviality when Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson shared bourbon and small talk with friends and enemies alike.
And, like then, the friendships can result in bipartisan legislation. "Anytime I have tried to get things done and been successful, it's been with the help of a Republican woman," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
The network will now mean that even the most junior among them has the ear of nearly a quarter of the Senate. "When you have 20 people -- not that they're a monolithic bloc -- but they're more likely to hear you out on something," says retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. "They will give you their every consideration, even if they don't ultimately give you their support, which is all you can ask for."