Nation & World

Sen. Boxer, nearing retirement, ‘focusing on the big ideas’

Sen. Barbara Boxer and fellow California Democrat George Miller and their spouses used to spend weekends together, just a pair of couples taking a break from the pressures and strains of Capitol Hill.

But while Miller, who spent four decades in the House of Representatives before retiring last year, and the others relaxed over beers, Boxer would be sketching plans for the coming week’s political battles.

“She’s on the case all the time,” Miller said. “She’s always organizing.”

Indeed, even as the clock ticks down on Boxer’s 24-year Senate career – she announced in January she would not run for re-election next year – she’s not fading into the Senate’s ornate woodwork.

The stockbroker turned anti-Vietnam War activist turned Capitol Hill veteran is still scribbling away, making plans and developing strategies to finish some of the things she’s started.

Like many in Congress, she’s become expert at juggling priorities. Now hers have taken on the color of a last hurrah: aid for drought-stricken California, a bill to collect data on the shootings of civilians by police and of police by civilians, a program to help states transition toward cleaner energy, and legislation to guarantee that terminally ill patients can receive enough medication to ease their suffering.

“I’m focusing on the big ideas,” Boxer told reporters during a recent interview.

It’s become harder than ever, however, to get much done in Washington’s polarized environment. Next year won’t be any easier, as presidential and Senate elections cast long shadows over the congressional agenda. Boxer is leaving in January 2017, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of time.

The experience of a former colleague, Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, offers a cautionary tale. Frustrated with Senate gridlock, Snowe retired in 2013 after three terms. She described her final months as “full steam ahead into a brick wall.”

“It opened up time for me,” said Snowe, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “But on the other hand, it made me realize there was precious time remaining and I had a lot to do. It was a different kind of pressure.”

One burden Boxer no longer has to endure is raising the tens of millions of dollars it takes to run a statewide campaign in California. Voters have returned her to the Senate three times, even as her statewide approval rating has rarely topped 50 percent.

She intends to use the time she would otherwise need to devote to her own fundraising to helping other Democrats win back the Senate. She also plans to hit the trail on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

“She is as outspoken as ever,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said of Boxer. “But I think she feels a freedom in being relieved of her political responsibilities.”

The 74-year-old Boxer has spent almost half her life on Capitol Hill, most of that time in the Senate. But her first decade was in the House, where she cemented her image as an unwavering tribune for liberal causes, the possessor of a tart wit and a combat-ready opponent during floor debates.

“The left will dearly miss her,” said Bill Whalen, a former chief speechwriter for former California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, “and Republicans will not.”

Early on, she drew attention to wasteful spending by the military, including the infamous $7,622 Air Force coffee pot, but she opposed several weapons systems as well, including a plan for an anti-missile shield popularly known as “Star Wars.”

When a Republican colleague during a 1989 House debate said that women spent more on pantyhose every year than what the Pentagon wanted to spend on the missile shield, Boxer cracked, “Pantyhose gives us 100 percent support. Star Wars does not.”

She is best known, perhaps, for the march of women House members that she led to the Senate in 1991 to demand that the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee hold hearings on sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Once a member of the Senate herself after the 1992 “Year of the Woman election” – four entered the Senate and 24 joined the House – Boxer’s style didn’t always win over her colleagues or translate into legislative accomplishments.

Former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, no shrinking violet himself when it came to party warfare, once called her “the most partisan senator I’ve ever known.”

“There’s no doubt that she’s fiercely partisan,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who also served with Boxer in the House. “but she has the respect of all of us because her positions are well thought out and principled.”

While Boxer’s colleagues became accustomed to her fiery speeches on the Senate floor, in committee hearings and at press conferences, her views and personality grated on rank-and-file Republicans, said Whalen, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

“She’s not the only outraged liberal on Capitol Hill,” he said, “but she excels at the performance art of liberal outrage.”

Wilson served as governor during Boxer’s first term. Whalen said that if the governor’s staff needed something from the Senate, they would go to Boxer’s fellow Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a moderate who built a reputation as a consensus-builder.

Whalen compared Feinstein and Boxer to two longtime New York senators who served together, Republican Alfonse D’Amato and the late Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While D’Amato earned the nickname “Senator Pothole” for his attention to constituents’ needs, Moynihan was best known for his soaring speeches.

“One was a workhorse, and one was more of a show horse,” Whalen said.

Overall, Boxer has a long legislative record. Last year, National Journal, a publication that covers politics and government, ranked her sixth among the top 10 senators for getting bills enacted into law. At 530 bills enacted from the time she was first elected to Congress, Boxer is slightly ahead of her Nevada neighbor Harry Reid, the leader of Senate Democrats.

Of the 129 of those bills enacted during her Senate years, Boxer was the lead sponsor on 13. They include legislation to reduce the amount of lead in drinking water, to allow research on organ donations between people infected with HIV, to strengthen the U.S.-Israel security partnership and to permit the use of federal highway funds to perform seismic retrofits on bridges.

Others are the stuff of everyday lawmaking on Capitol Hill: the renaming of post offices, courthouses, rivers and a mountain in Yosemite National Park.

Among Boxer’s signature issues, her successes include blocking attempts to erode abortion rights; ensuring equal treatment for women in the workplace and the military; and establishing new safeguards for workers, consumers and the environment.

One major issue has eluded her, though. She’ll likely leave the Senate without achieving legislation to address climate change.

The Senate was a different place when Boxer first got there. There wasn’t even a women’s bathroom off the Senate floor. The male-dominated chamber looked warily on the women who were elected in 1992.

“When they arrived, they had to prove that they were there not just to make a point, but to make a difference,” said Karen Olick, a former Boxer chief of staff.

Boxer wanted to join the Commerce Committee, but its then-chairman, Sen. Fritz Hollings, a conservative Democrat from South Carolina, wasn’t sure Boxer would be a team player.

“It took time,” Olick said, “but once senators saw that Barbara was serious about getting things done, she gained not only their trust, but their respect.”

Boxer’s reputation as a party firebrand sometimes belies her pragmatism. Earlier this year, she co-sponsored a highway funding bill with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said Boxer has not moderated her views so much as become more of a negotiator since assuming greater responsibilities. She chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for seven years.

Moreover, there might not be an odder couple in the chamber, as far as ideological opposites who have figured out how to work together, than Boxer and her deeply conservative colleague on the committee, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

He took over the committee in January when Republicans assumed control of the Senate. A longstanding skeptic of the science behind climate change, Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor earlier this year as evidence that global warming was a hoax. Boxer has been championing the issue for years.

“We see the world completely differently,” she said of Inhofe. “He is against all the landmark (environmental) laws, and I want to make them stronger.”

But they have been allies on other fronts, resulting last year in the first water infrastructure bill in seven years. This year, it could mean the first long-term highway bill in a decade.

“The disagreements are not personal,” Boxer said.

Inhofe said he’s probably sat next to Boxer longer than anyone else in the chamber. And he couldn’t think of anything they agreed on except public works.

“Yet we can still maintain a genuine friendship,” Inhofe said. “A lot of people can’t do that, so that’s kind of unique between the two of us.”

Boxer said she feels confident that when she does finally depart 18 months from now, her concerns will be in good hands: Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey on civil rights, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York on women’s equality, Edward Markey of Massachusetts on the environment, Sherrod Brown of Ohio on workers’ rights and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on consumer protection.

“I feel good,” Boxer said. “I think if you look at a variety of issues I’ve focused on, one of the reasons that I, frankly, could move on was because of these fabulous people that are here, now, in the caucus.”

Still, as Miller, her longtime friend and political ally, noted: “She’s not going to be good at sitting still. I suspect that she’ll pick up the battle in another venue.”

On a recent morning when the Senate was dealing with a bill to overhaul government surveillance, the Senate buzzer went off to signal an upcoming vote. Boxer left her spacious corner office in the marbled Hart Senate Office Building – one of the perks of a long career – for the elevators on her way to the Senate floor.

The elevator doors slid open. Her colleagues were packed wall to wall, so she waved them on.

“Don’t miss me too much,” Boxer joked as the doors closed. “I’ll be there.”

For a little while longer.

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