San Diego Union-Tribune
July 9, 2001
The new Boxer has pragmatic twist
Partisan battler turns to the art of compromise
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- Barbara Boxer did not anticipate a pleasant meeting.
As the California senator rode the underground subway that shuttles
lawmakers between their offices and the Capitol one recent afternoon,
she talked of her plan to require tougher labeling standards for bottled
water. On the other end of her subway ride -- waiting in a Capitol room -- were the people who represent bottled water companies.
Such meetings "do become very heated and difficult," Boxer
"But what I usually say to the special interests is that you have a
right to be heard . . . . I think it's important to face the people who are
There was a time, observers say, when this champion of idealistic
notions and liberal causes would not even take a phone call from such adversaries, much less meet them face to face. But could it be that nearly 20 years in Congress -- 10 in the House and eight in the Senate -- have made Boxer something of a pragmatist?
Certainly, the 60-year-old Boxer is talking more like a pragmatist. A
few years ago, for instance, Boxer might have filibustered Bush's judicial
nominees to protest their conservative bent. But Boxer this year embraced a
bipartisan committee that will review judicial prospects.
"This is much better," Boxer said, noting that filibusters might prove
a point, "but that doesn't mean it's successful."
In the past, Boxer was known less for her policies than for her
partisanship. She could be counted on to give a podium-pounding speech against the evils of tuna fishing that ensnared dolphins. But as for the tedious chore of compromise and deal-cutting, Boxer often introduced bills to make a point, not to make law. She was known to take stands so stubborn that it was impossible for political opposites to negotiate with her.
One still sees that in Boxer's legislative repertoire. She can be the
champion of ultraliberal -- and sometimes hopeless -- causes. And she can be so inflexible that Senate Republicans dislike working with her.
"While Boxer may not actively (reject) engagement with Republicans, she
certainly doesn't cultivate it," said one person familiar with the
Yet, those who work closely with Boxer's office said the senator has
learned to work the halls of Congress to get things done, not just to get in
In its most recent rating, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that
Boxer voted favorably on business issues almost 60 percent of the time -- a
healthy score for a Democrat. That's just one percentage point lower than the
chamber's score for Boxer's California counterpart, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, often considered a pro-business Democrat.
Jim Seeley, a lobbyist for the city of Los Angeles, said that from
Boxer's seat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she "worked well with everybody" to get $2 billion in loans to help build the Alameda Corridor, even though the Senate was in Republican hands at the time.
"I don't want to make it look like she works well with every
Republican," Seeley said. "She's really partisan. But . . . the Alameda Corridor owes her a debt of gratitude."
Whether Boxer's newfound practicality has something to do with
re-election is unclear. Boxer, who continues to be a favorite target of California Republicans who chafe at her liberalism, won her 1998 re-election by 10 percentage points. On the other hand, the GOP is talking about running a potentially formidable candidate in 2004 -- National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who could help Republicans attract more minority and moderate voters.
As Boxer explained it, she's come to realize that an increasing number
of her colleagues come from states whose voters swing between Republican and Democratic candidates. It's not, she said, "like regular politics anymore."
"My latest victory . . . was (with) John Ensign of Nevada," Boxer said,
referring to the conservative senator who helped her win more money for
after-school programs. "I continue to work with Republicans. . . . The
Senate isn't about ideology. It's about getting things done."
Even some stands that may seem ideological have a practical purpose,
Boxer said. Her legislation to force oil companies to pay more in royalties
didn't go anywhere in 1999. But it got enough Senate votes that the Clinton
administration was able to negotiate new oil royalty payments anyway.
"Without liberals and conservatives, there would be no center," Boxer
said. "If you don't have progressive voices in the Senate, you're not going to
find the ground to compromise."
Part of Boxer's challenge in the Senate has been to emerge from the
shadow of Dianne Feinstein -- the highly disciplined, well-respected
California senior senator who has a reputation for working well with Republicans.
Some say that Feinstein remains much more accessible than Boxer. Boxer
and her staff can be helpful and cooperative, said one person who has
worked closely with Boxer, but "it's just never quite the same level of
engagement" as with Feinstein.
Certainly Darrell Issa believes this may be the case. The new
Republican congressman from Vista -- who lost a GOP primary bid to take on Boxer in 1998 -- said, "There's a consistent pattern that it's hard to get a
meeting with Boxer."
Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, said that
Boxer's newfound pragmatism probably means she has moderated her legislative style, not necessarily her political views.
"If you ask (Senate Majority Leader) Tom Daschle, he would say Barbara
Boxer is much easier to deal with than a Dianne Feinstein when it comes
to party positions," Panetta said.
Boxer continues to wage high-profile fights for two key Democratic
causes, environmental protection and abortion rights. Boxer has become one of the most vocal opponents of President Bush's environmental policies. As a
senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she is fighting to bring down arsenic levels in drinking water and to create a
drinking water standard for Chromium-6, the contaminant featured in the movie "Erin Brockovich."
As the likely chairwoman of the International Operations Subcommittee
of the Foreign Relations Committee, she wants to fight Bush's order denying
federal funds to U.S. organizations overseas that provide abortion services and counseling. And she recently sided with those trying to reverse a
judge's ruling that gave First Amendment protection to an Internet site maintained by anti-abortion activists. The site listed abortion doctors' names and addresses, crossing out those who had been killed and shading in gray those who had been wounded.
"People have the right to call me any name they want . . . but when
they threaten me . . . I would put them in jail," Boxer said. "That's where
I come down on this site or any other site -- right, left, middle."