What senators wanted to know before Tammy Duckworth could bring her baby to work

No, no one plans to change any diapers on the Senate floor.
No, no one plans to change any diapers on the Senate floor.
Image: AP/Alex Brandon
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Updated: April 19, 8:30am

The US Senate passed a new rule Wednesday evening (April 18) allowing lawmakers to bring babies onto the Senate floor for the first time.

Without it, Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois Democrat who just gave birth to Maile Pearl Bowlsbey on April 9, wouldn’t be able to do her job, as Quartz wrote earlier. Senators need to cast their votes and introduce new legislation in person, and a vote can be called at nearly any time of day or night.

The US has had nearly 2,000 senators in the past 229 years, but Duckworth is the first to give birth as a sitting senator. Serving her constituents will mean forgoing “maternity leave” in the traditional sense.

Rules and Administration Committee chair Roy Blunt, Republican from Missouri, and ranking Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, sent the proposed rule to the full Senate that would allow babies up to a year old on the floor on April 17. Before the rule passed unanimously, children and family members of Senators were completely barred from the Senate floor.

Ahead of the vote, the predominantly male Senate, which also is one of the oldest in US history, had questions, Klobuchar told Quartz. Lots of questions, including:

Will there be an infant dress code?

“No, we’re not going to have a dress code for the baby,” Klobuchar said. While that sounds off the wall, what women wear in the Senate in particular has been closely policed—it was not until the early 1990s that pant suits were allowed.

Can’t Duckworth just vote from the Senate cloak room, while holding her baby?

Both Republicans and Democrats have a room, originally quite literally a room for cloaks, that is outside the Senate chamber, where a small handful of aides sit to keep senators informed of voting.

The chamber was built in 1859, and the cloakroom is difficult to access from the outside for Duckworth, who lost both her legs when she served in the Iraq war. “She can’t get from there to the floor without a wheelchair,” Klobuchar said, and she has to go across the floor to get into it anyway.

Is she going to breastfeed on the floor?

This was a frequent question, Klobuchar noted. Duckworth “has no plans to do so,” she said. The breastfeeding question was presented through congressional aides and other emissaries, rather than directly, Klobuchar noted.

During one unrelated Senate briefing, she noticed four older senators standing together, at least one of whom had made discreet inquiries on the topic. “I poked them in the back and said ‘I hear you had a question about breastfeeding on the floor’?” Klobuchar recalled. “They all said ‘No, no, no.’ ”

Will she change the baby’s diaper on the floor?

“No, she has no intention of changing the baby’s diaper on the floor,” Klobuchar said.

What if the baby cries?

“She will bring the baby somewhere else if it is crying,” Klobuchar said. (There already is plenty of baby-like behavior on the Senate floor, in the form of actual tears or just whining, observers note.)

What if, suddenly, there’s a bunch of babies on the floor?

That means “we’ve elected more women,” Klobuchar said, adding again that it would be “just during the votes.” Under the new rule, men, too, can bring new babies to the floor, she emphasized.

“The Senate doesn’t like to make changes,” Klobuchar said. In 1977, the last time the official rules were changed about who or what could come on to the floor, it was to allow service dogs.

While senators were willing to make special exemptions for Duckworth, the new mother and the Rules Committee both wanted to the changes more lasting, Klobuchar said. “We wanted it to be permanent and she wanted it to be permanent, so it would help other women,” and particularly encourage people with children, and women of child-bearing age, to join the Senate.