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Sen. Barbara Boxer's ardor and tenacity cut both ways

The California Democrat has cemented a reputation for getting things done and refusing to budge on top priorities. But in some cases, her efforts have collapsed under the weight of her convictions.

October 21, 2010|By Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — After the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans rode an anti-incumbent wave to win both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, they sought to roll back regulations they called cumbersome to industry.

Barbara Boxer: In the Oct. 21 Section A, a photo caption accompanying a profile of Sen. Barbara Boxer said she had served 10 years in Congress and 18 years in the Senate. It should have said she served 10 years in the House of Representatives and 18 in the Senate. —

Climate change: A profile of Sen. Barbara Boxer in the Oct. 21 Section A incorrectly said that Republicans on the Senate's environment committee unanimously had voted against a bill on climate change that Boxer pushed in 2007. One Republican member of the committee, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, supported the bill. —

With shell-shocked Democrats in disarray, Sen. Barbara Boxer launched a lonely crusade to fend off the assault on environment and health standards. She held the floor three days in a row.

"People thought Barbara Boxer was pretty insane to be up there alone filibustering that issue," recalled Lynn Goldman, then a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency. "But she wasn't intimidated. And she wouldn't give up. And once that wave of legislation was held back, the bills were never introduced again."

Fifteen years later, the California Democrat was crusading for another core concern, a climate change bill. She was the Senate's most vocal advocate of curbing greenhouse gases, headed a powerful committee and was fiercely determined to win.

But Republicans boycotted her bill in committee, and she could not bridge the divide. As the acrimony intensified, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) agreed to rewrite the bill and take the lead while Boxer worked behind the scenes. Ultimately, the effort collapsed.

"It turned into something little better than a fiasco," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group. "It was just a nightmare of partisan flame-throwing."

The two episodes illustrate Boxer's strengths and weaknesses — tenacious and impassioned on one hand, strident and abrasive on the other — as she heads into the final weeks of a bitter re-election race against Republican challenger Carly Fiorina.

In an anti-incumbent year, Boxer hopes to convince voters that her 10 years in the House of Representatives and 18 in the Senate are an advantage and not a liability. There is little dispute about her role there.

"There wouldn't be a middle without Barbara Boxer," said Natalie Ravitz, a former senior advisor. "There has to be a left, and a right, and that's how you get to the middle. She holds down the left."

"This is a tough gal, a very tough gal," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a longtime friend. "She stands up and fights for what she believes in. And she doesn't back up a step."

Determined to blunt charges that Boxer's street-fighter style and unabashed liberalism have limited her impact in Congress, her staff has compiled every amendment, earmark and other bill she has championed since she became the first woman to head the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works in 2007.

According to their account, which Republicans do not dispute, the panel approved 130 pieces of legislation, and all or part of 55 later became law. None were landmark bills, but the tally surpasses the number passed or enacted under the previous chair, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a conservative Republican.

Her problem is the focus, not the numbers. With economic woes dominating this year's campaign, Boxer has had to pivot to emphasize job creation and entrepreneurship, not just clean water or new roads.

"I don't think she always appreciated their importance like she does today," said longtime ally Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club.

Otherwise, Boxer's politics have changed little over the years. Two recent exceptions: she now backs same-sex marriage, not just civil unions. And she favors building, not banning, nuclear power plants to ease America's reliance on fossil fuels.

Boxer, 69, is sardonic, witty and smart, and she talks almost as quickly as she walks, rattling off a list of votes and projects she has helped deliver to California as her heels clatter down the marble halls of Capitol Hill. (On Sept. 11, 2001, when the Capitol was evacuated and she was urged to shed her high heels and run, she refused. "I said, 'No terrorist is going to make me take my shoes off,' " she recalled in an interview.)

On a recent morning, Boxer meets her first aide at 8 a.m., and then hurries to the Capitol for a strategy session with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Then, a sprint to another building and she calls the environment committee to order. Only three other senators attend and, as often happens, they leave after making brief statements.

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