From the outside, the red brick neo-Victorian on Capitol Hill looks nothing at all like a sorority house. But that's what three Democratic congresswomen have called their Washington digs during the past six years.
Now the sisterhood is expanding to four, or possibly five members.
It began when New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney
grew tired of solo apartment living during her first dozen years in office. In 2005 she bought a $1.5-million home just blocks from the Capitol, took the top-floor master suite for herself and rented out two second-story bedrooms to freshmen Debbie Wasserman Schultz
of Florida and Melissa Bean
of Illinois. Both craved after-hours companionship and a place where their kids, who were living back home with their dads, would be welcome any time.
Maloney understood the yearning for family visits. Before her own daughters left for college, they lived in New York with their father while she commuted to Washington.
Dubbed the Member Moms by the National Journal, the three women became good friends and their shared quarters a kind of girls' dorm
for grown-ups. After helping the kids with homework via phone, fax and video conferencing, Bean and Wasserman Schultz often sat around in their pajamas eating popcorn and yakking. Maloney, the earliest riser of the three, sometimes joined in these late-night sessions.
They frequently swapped legislative and political strategy, and debated any number of issues. Bean, a Blue Dog Democrat and the most conservative of the lot, was also the lone housemate supporting Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, which caused some tension until Obama became the nominee.
They also weathered personal tragedies. In 2007, Wasserman Schultz was diagnosed with breast cancer and secretly underwent seven major surgeries before going public
with her ordeal in 2009. Bean was one of the few non-family members in whom she confided. Both women rallied behind Maloney last year when her husband of more than three decades, Clifton Maloney,
died in Tibet after climbing the world's seventh-highest peak.
Over the years the housemates have hosted fundraisers for fellow Democrats, bipartisan holiday dinners for colleagues, and sleepovers for family and friends. The children often arrive with several pals, and crash on pull-out sofas and air mattresses scattered around the house.
Now, however, the tenant roster is changing. Freshman Rep. Frederica Wilson
of Miami, who shared a rented four-bedroom home in Tallahassee with Wasserman Schultz when both were in the Florida Legislature, has taken the one-bedroom basement apartment just vacated by a non-congressional couple.
Maloney has unlocked the downstairs door leading to the rest of the house "so Frederica can come upstairs and join us whenever she wants, for the popcorn fests or strategy sessions or crying on each others' shoulders."
The first Member Mom with grandchildren, Wilson couldn't be happier. "Debbie is a lot of fun, and smart and will be a good mentor for me, someone I can vent with, because there will be a lot of venting, someone I can laugh with and cry with."
And Maloney is considering adding one more housemate, touting such amenities as the light-filled living and dining room; the open-plan chef's kitchen with granite counters, cherry cabinets and stainless appliances; and a TV room at the back of the house. It's a running joke that there is almost nothing in the fridge except bottled water, and the only food in the freezer is pizza and hot dogs for the kids.
It is not yet clear whether Bean, who lost by fewer than 300 votes
to Republican and tea party favorite Joe Walsh, will remain in Washington. Still smarting over the race, which she did not concede for two weeks until a recount was complete, Bean wouldn't say much about her future to Politics Daily. "I am still working until the final day of this session and then I will figure it out. I am keeping my options open."
It's possible she'll get an Obama administration post, or a private-sector job using her small business expertise, said presidential counselor David Axelrod. "We think really, really highly of Melissa. She's smart and she has tremendous insights into and great ideas about small business."
But a new job might make it ethically tricky for Bean to remain in the sorority house.
Although former Rep. Leon Panetta
shared the notoriously messy, all-Democratic, all-male "Animal House" owned by fellow California Rep. George Miller for years, he had to move out when he became President Clinton's chief of staff. Something about the separation of powers, you know.
It might be even dicier for Bean to live with a group of lawmakers if she became a lobbyist, especially one who was paying rent to a member of Congress.
Even before Bean conceded last month, Wasserman Schultz was emphatic about the future of her Capitol Hill home away from home: "The sorority house is not going to go away. The sisterhood is not going away."