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Forget the Thelma and Louise Thing : BARBARA BOXER AND DIANNE FEINSTEIN ARE WAY BEYOND THE ELECTION-YEAR ROAD SHOW. THEY ARE DEEP INTO THE WAYS AND MEANS OF THE SENATE, FIGHTING TO SURVIVE, AND MAYBE, JUST MAYBE, GETTING A FEW THINGS DONE.

November 19, 1995|Nina J. Easton

It is midweek in mid-October and the Republican-controlled Congress has just launched its latest, and for them most dangerous, assault on the liberal welfare state, this time targeting Medicare and Medicaid. Barbara Boxer smears a glob of cream cheese on a bagel, picks up her freshly brewed cup of coffee and settles into one end of a couch in her warm-hued office. A dozen reporters gather around, but their questions must wait. First, the senator from California, au courant in her fashionable tweed suit and chunky heels, wants to issue a few quotable words on the Republican plan. "I call the Republican plan the 'Dr. Kervorkian Medicaid Plan,' " she starts, "because, basically, it's so bad that people will start calling Dr. Kervorkian."

One floor up and a few hours later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein sits down at her desk, surrounded by imposing piles of bound folders, to finish drafting remarks on the GOP plan. The outcome of this work session surprises her staffers: Rather than toning down the statement's partisan rhetoric as she normally does, the senator seems eager to let loose--but "loose" only by her own standards. The speech that Feinstein makes on the Senate floor at the end of the day makes her sound less like a combative politician than a really angry diplomat. The pink-suited matronly figure rises to the podium, her sure voice filling the chamber, to denounce the GOP plan as "revolution for revolution's sake" and "blatant extremism" that goes "beyond the bounds of reason."

Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are the yin and yang of the Democratic Party. One is a passionate politician who swings from the gut, who sees truth laying on the surface of an issue, ready for the taking. Boxer is a feminist populist who fights for her causes with the ardor that only a true believer can muster. The other is a restless mind who digs long and deep to find her set of truths--and still reserves the right to change her mind. Feinstein is an unpredictable moderate who gerrymanders her centrist positions from midway between ideological poles.

Often the two senators end up in the same place: Just as they both attacked the GOP's Medicare/Medicaid plan they both voted in favor of their opponents' welfare-reform legislation, partly as a strategic move to counteract the House's more drastic plan. But the styles of California's two senators are so markedly different, it's amazing now that anyone ever bought the Thelma-and-Louise routine they took on the road in 1992, when they correctly calculated that the state's voters were in the mood to send outsiders in skirts to Washington to shake things up.

Feinstein and Boxer are less a unified legislative team than a microcosm of the Democratic Party's strengths and weaknesses, its missteps and forward steps, as it tries to recapture center stage. Moderates such as Feinstein would knit together bits of the Left and the Right into a less-than-tidy, sometimes-conflicting centrist ideology that has the potential to appeal to a broader base. But in doing so, she--like President Bill Clinton--risks being accused of losing the party's soul.

Stalwart liberals such as Boxer would sharpen the arrows in an old quiver, unapologetically pursuing the party's historical agenda of employing Washington muscle to protect women and minorities, the environment and consumers, children and the poor. But in doing so, she, like the party's congressional leadership, risks appearing out-of-touch with an increasingly conservative electorate.

In the 10 months since Democrats lost control of Congress, each of California's senators has struggled to find a voice that would work from the back bench. Each followed separate paths in search of relevance for themselves and for the Democratic Party.

Each went on a mission.

BARBARA BOXER PLUNGES INTO PARTISAN WARFARE WITH THE UNREPENTANT zeal of a sky diver who knows she'll land 10,000 feet below feeling exhilarated, even righteous, if perhaps a little bruised. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) describes his friend as "one of the toughest partisan shooters in this building"--and Boxer revels in the description. She grins like an adrenaline junkie getting a fix as she recounts GOP presidential candidate Robert Dole's recent pledge to "eliminate" her. Or when she describes her "Let's have at it!" retort last summer to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after he warned that the Senate ethics panel he chairs might embarrass key Democrats if she refused to back off her call for public hearings on Sen. Bob Packwood's sexual misdeeds.

But there is another side to Boxer, one that was largely missed this year as she waged her often lonesome campaign to convince a mostly male Senate to expose and punish one of their own for behavior historically overlooked by the institution's unwritten code of silence. It's the side of Boxer where the boxing gloves--her ritual prop in editorial cartoons depicting the Packwood episode--come off.

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