The same two senators have headed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for a decade, but depending on how the votes fall today, that could change.
The panel, which oversees U.S. EPA and writes some of the federal government's most sweeping infrastructure bills, could get a new ranking Republican if Democrats retain control of the chamber. And if pre-election polling proves wrong and the GOP gains both the White House and the Senate tonight, the panel's leaders may stay the same, but their roles will change substantially to respond to new political realities.
Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have been the top Republican and Democrat on the EPW Committee since 2003, with Inhofe handing off the gavel to Boxer in 2007 when Democrats gained control of the Senate.
The pair have a famously friendly personal relationship, and they have collaborated on highway funding and other issues. But it would be difficult to find two senators more diametrically opposed on issues of environmental regulation and global warming than Boxer, who cast herself as a crusader on climate policy even when she was running for re-election in 2010, and Inhofe, the chamber's top climate skeptic, who earlier this year published a book titled "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future."
"James Inhofe singlehandedly reframed the entire political debate about the science of global warming and about the political cost of cap and trade," said his former staffer Marc Morano, who is now publisher of the skeptic blog "Climate Depot."
The Senate's GOP caucus limits its members to six years as chairman and six as ranking member. So while Inhofe could serve another two years as chairman, if Republicans remain in the minority he will be pushed out and is expected to take the top Republican spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Under that scenario, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is in line to become top Republican on the panel, though Inhofe would remain a senior member and might even chair a subcommittee.
Different agendas, different state interests
Observers say that while there is no real difference between the two Republicans' views on environmental policy, they do have different agendas that are in keeping with their two home states.
"I wouldn't say his positions would be radically different," said one Senate aide of Vitter. "I would say his priorities would be a little different."
The next Congress will grapple with a water infrastructure bill and another highway bill, both of which will be important to Vitter's Bayou State constituents.
But also of key importance to Louisiana is its oil and gas industry. And while Republicans and pro-business advocates are quick to note that Inhofe has been a champion for reining in regulations that EPA and other agencies have proposed for a variety of sectors, including petroleum, they would expect Vitter to maintain a laser-like focus on the industry.
"The biggest change you'd see between the two of them is that the energy economy of the state of Louisiana has a substantial interest in both onshore and offshore development of oil and natural gas resources," said Scott Segal, an energy attorney at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.
Oklahoma has no offshore industry, he noted, while Louisiana has both deepwater oil and shallow-water natural gas production. It is also second to Texas as a refining state, making Vitter and his staff particularly sensitive to those issues.
"While both Inhofe and Vitter understand the oil and gas industry very well, there is no doubt that the Louisiana economy is far more related to the production of oil, gas and petrochemicals and other products directly related to petroleum," he said.
"What that means," Segal continued, "is that one might predict that committee resources and committee time might devote at least some additional time to those offshore issues."
Morano said that Republicans would "sorely miss" his former boss as top Republican on the panel, especially for his work in discrediting climate change science.
"I think Vitter will be much less focused on climate science, but otherwise, he and Inhofe are very much in tandem on many issues," he said, though he added the Vitter could be "aggressive" on regulation and most industry advocates said that Vitter would be an effective leader on combating regulation of all kinds.
Segal agreed that the Louisiana senator was "by no means a shrinking violet" on those issues.
Meanwhile, Andrew Wheeler, Inhofe's former staff director on the EPW Committee said Vitter had been a voice in every recent debate over Senate energy policy.
"It may appear that Inhofe has had more [interest], just because he has had the gavel and he has had the leadership position," he said. "I don't think that Senator Vitter has been less concerned; I just think that he hasn't had the national platform."
If, on the other hand, Republicans experience an unexpected landslide at the polls tonight, bringing them control of both the White House and Senate, Inhofe will not only remain on the EPW Committee but regain the gavel.
In that case, the new chairman will be occupied with reviewing any new regulations the Obama administration rushes to put in place as it heads for the door, Inhofe spokesman Matt Dempsey said. The senator's office recently released a report predicting a "regulatory onslaught" if Obama loses the election (E&ENews PM, Oct. 18).
Wheeler said his former boss would also be active in exercising oversight, no matter who is in the White House. He noted that during the George W. Bush administration, then-Chairman Inhofe parted ways with his own party on issues like its decision to designate the polar bear as threatened and to cut money for water infrastructure projects he favored.
"I'm not saying he beat them up on a regular basis or anything, but I think he was certainly more critical of the Bush administration than Senator Boxer has been over the Obama administration," he said.
Segal said Inhofe might also chart an ambitious course on anti-regulatory legislation.
"I would just observe it has been over 20 years since we have reauthorized a Clean Air Act," he said. Inhofe held hearings on the statute as head of EPW's subcommittee on air quality in 2000, but legislation to amend the Clean Air Act was never advanced. House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) has held several forums he says he hopes will lay the groundwork for amendments to the statute. Segal suggested Inhofe might do the same.
"I would certainly think that the time is right for that. Whether he would choose to go in that direction, I don't know," Segal said.
President Romney, Chairwoman Boxer?
But if Democrats retain control of the Senate tonight but lose the White House, the most interesting changes to the EPW Committee might be the role played by its chairwoman.
Boxer was aggressive in her oversight of the Bush EPA.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, remembers Boxer's questioning of Bush EPA administrator nominee Stephen Johnson, especially concerning an agency-sponsored study on child exposure to pesticides. EPA was recruiting poor parents willing to expose their young children to a pesticide to observe its effects.
"I thought she was going to reach across and grab Stephen Johnson by throat when she asked him, "Would you have your grandchild participate in this study?'" he said, adding that he was happy he wasn't on Johnson's side of the dais.
Ruch noted that if GOP nominee Mitt Romney is elected tonight, one of the first things the EPW Committee would do in the next Congress would be to deal with his nominations. He expected Boxer to be a tough sell.
Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said he also expected Boxer to fight tooth and nail if Romney's EPA tried to roll back environmental safeguards.
"I would expect that Senator Boxer would become a very aggressive watchdog at that point," he said.
"It would depend on what happens," O'Donnell said. "But I've never known her to be shy about criticizing someone who she thinks is doing something wrong, especially if they're Republican."