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Boxer still quick to take the gloves off

The California Democrat is working to soften her image. Yet she remains known less for her forays across the aisle than for her partisan leanings and fists-up attitude.

May 22, 2010|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Barbara Boxer came to the U.S. Senate almost 18 years ago, a scrappy and unabashed liberal. Since then, the California Democrat has worked to shed her image as an ideologue.

She teamed up with one Republican senator in pursuit of a tax break for high-tech corporations. She worked with another senator who is about as far to the right as she is to the left — James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — to pass a massive water bill.

Over the objections of President Obama, who wanted to cut the funding, she and a third Republican senator sought money for more Boeing C-17 military cargo planes assembled in their states.

Yet Boxer remains known less for her forays across the aisle than for her partisan leanings and fists-up attitude, which were on display after she took over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2007.

Boxer invited former Vice President Al Gore to testify about their desire for Congress to address global warming. But when Inhofe, a leading skeptic of human-caused climate change, repeatedly interrupted Gore, Boxer bluntly reminded the former chairman that she was setting the agenda now that her party was in control.

"You're not making the rules,'' Boxer told Inhofe. "Elections have consequences. So I make the rules."

That prickly approach and her political positions have come under attack in this election season from the three major Republican candidates vying to challenge her in November. One of them, former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, castigates the 69-year-old Boxer as a legislative lightweight who takes "a rigid partisan approach to every issue."

Boxer, elected in 1992 after serving a decade in the House, points to lists of accomplishments over her three terms. She said that she has sponsored or cosponsored more than 1,000 measures, from designating hundreds of thousands of acres in California as wilderness to strengthening toy-safety rules.

"I'm not a fierce partisan,'' Boxer said in a recent interview outside the Senate chamber. "I am a strong fighter for the things I believe in.''

Yet her sometimes combative style makes it more likely that Republicans in search of compromise will approach fellow California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who comes across as more measured.

Boxer's style can be an asset "in that it fires up her supporters,'' said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican party official. "The downside is that it makes bipartisan bridge-building a little more difficult.''

Ironically, Boxer's and Feinstein's records are remarkably similar, and they often work together on legislation. "Everybody has a different way of working," said Feinstein, who is the honorary chair of Boxer's reelection campaign. "It does not mean that one is better than the other.''

Still, they occasionally split. Boxer opposed the reappointment of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, going to war in Iraq and President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of State. Feinstein took the opposite positions.

Senate watchers differ over Boxer's influence, and whether her tenure in the Senate has changed her style.

"She's still got very strong views and expresses them forcefully,'' said Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. But as Boxer has gained risen in seniority, she is "focused more on how do you get something done than on scoring points.''

But Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who studies Congress, said Boxer's "influence may be less prominent than her voice.''

The limits of Boxer's approach can be seen by the fate of one of her top priorities: legislation to limit global-warming emissions. The fact that the issue came to the fore as Boxer became chairman of the environment committee put her on the knife's edge. The issue dovetails with Boxer's lifelong interest in the environment but also raises the ire of Republicans like few other subjects.

"It's made her more influential inside the Congress, but it's made her electorally more vulnerable,'' said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

Her committee passed a climate-change bill months ago. But it did so without the support of any Republicans, who complained that the legislation would drive up energy prices and harm the economy. They also boycotted the meeting at which Democrats approved the bill.

As the bill stalled, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, rather than Boxer, emerged as the lead Democrat trying to broker a compromise. Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) recently unveiled a bill but without a Republican co-sponsor. It faces uncertain prospects.

"When it comes to environmental policy, I think she's just positioned so far left it's harder for people on the Republican side to reach out to her,'' said Chelsea Maxwell , a former senior climate aide to retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and now a lobbyist.

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