California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer presides over an Environment and Public Works Committee considered about as partisan as a panel can get.
Ideological differences among the committee's Democrats and Republicans are evident every time the panel meets, creating a political dynamic that raises big questions about the fate of climate change legislation that Boxer and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) plan to unveil tomorrow.
Historically, the EPW Committee is known for its bipartisan accomplishments, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. But experts agree that the committee's upcoming and far-reaching effort on global warming will take place in a much different political atmosphere.
In a speech Thursday on the Senate floor, Boxer underscored that partisan divide when she attacked a Republican-led effort aimed at halting U.S. EPA climate regulations for a year.
"The interesting thing is most of these environmental laws started with a Republican president named Richard Nixon," Boxer said. "What happened to the days when environmental laws were supported on both sides? Those days appear to be gone."
Disputes in the EPW Committee start at the top. Ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), himself a former chairman, regularly questions his Democratic counterpart's agenda with outspoken skepticism of climate change science and claims that a bill restricting greenhouse gas emissions would be a disaster for the U.S. economy.
At a recent hearing, Inhofe and Boxer had an exchange emblematic of their unusual relationship, which the two senators themselves often describe as "friendly" when policy and politics are not involved.
Inhofe first declared that the Democrats' 12-7 advantage over Republicans meant Boxer should have little trouble moving a bill through committee, but the Oklahoma senator then promised to still lead the charge in killing the bill once it gets to the Senate floor.
Furthermore, Inhofe ticked off a list of reasons for why he thinks a Senate climate bill would not reduce domestic dependence on foreign oil and won't cut global temperatures -- two key reasons why Boxer and her allies want to pass the legislation.
"And when it's all said and done, the American people will reject it and we will defeat it," Inhofe said. "Thank you, Madame Chairman. On that happy note ..."
"You really started my day off with such excitement," Boxer said, cutting him off. That drew Inhofe's quick reply: "That's not the first time."
'A strong and cherished tradition of bipartisanship'
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hasn't always been this way.
History books detail how Democrats, Republicans and members from other early American political parties made a habit on the committee of working together on legislation overseeing the nation's government buildings and day-to-day operations.
First known as the Committee on Public Buildings, the panel authorized overtime pay for White House staff following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, helped get electricity installed in the Senate and later signed off on the construction of the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House.
Environmental issues first appeared on the committee's radar in the 1960s, well before it had the words formally inscribed in its title in 1977.
There were often disagreements. But former staffers, senators and lobbyists say that committee leaders like Sens. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.), George Mitchell (D-Maine), Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Ed Muskie (D-Maine), John Chafee (R-R.I.) and Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) still worked together to produce the country's modern environmental laws, from the the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act to the Clean Air Act of 1970 and 1990.
"Those are all huge accomplishments," said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who, in 1990, served as the Sierra Club's lead air pollution lobbyist. "They basically invented the basic architecture of our environmental safeguards."
Former staffers recall their bosses pushed them to find agreements across the aisle.
"There was a culture that developed on the committee, between Democrats and Republicans and among staff, people interested in trying to do the right thing," said Bob Hurley, a top Republican committee staffer from 1980 to 1990. "That's not to say there were no differences in approaches. But there was always that extra effort."
For business lobbyists, the tight relationship among EPW Committee members made it difficult to deploy a "divide and conquer" strategy that could get the majority and minority staffs arguing. "It was very hard to separate people," Hurley said.
"We didn't just have a staff draft bill, show it to the committee, have them vote it up or down and put it on the floor," added Leon Billings, a longtime Muskie aide who served as the Democratic staff director of EPW's Environmental Pollution Subcommittee from 1966 to 1978. "We'd have 30 to 40 subcommittee and full committee markups."
In a 1988 history of the EPW Committee, Chairman Quentin Burdick (D-N.D.) and Stafford, then the ranking member, wrote, "The nature of the work and the dedication of its membership have enabled the Committee on Environment and Public Works to develop a strong and cherished tradition of bipartisanship. Through this approach we are able to address issues on their merits and resolve questions on the basis of what is best for the Nation."
The fall of GOP moderates
So what happened?
Many longtime EPW Committee observers can trace the end of bipartisanship and dealmaking to a series of events in the early to mid-1990s, when conservative GOP leaders put the screws on their own crop of moderates.
Chafee lost his re-election bid as chairman of the Senate Republican conference in 1990 to the more conservative Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. And many of the Republicans who had worked on those capstone environmental laws -- including Sens. David Durenberger of Minnesota, Al Simpson of Wyoming and Stafford -- were no longer serving in the Senate by the mid-1990s.
Consider the EPW Committee's Republican roster after the party won control of the Senate in the November 1994 elections. Chafee became the chairman, but behind him were several new committee members with a much more conservative mindset, including Sens. Inhofe, Craig Thomas of Wyoming, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Bob Bennett of Utah.
"I disagreed with Chafee more than I agreed with him," Inhofe recalled.
For Chafee and the dwindling number of moderate Republicans, it was a rough ride as the party's leadership tried to undermine the Clinton administration and their legitimate bipartisan efforts to pass legislation. For example, a bid to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, which had support from then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and both Democratic and GOP Western senators, did not get beyond the EPW Committee.
"It was a very tough time to be there, trying to be a leader on these issues and you turn around and no one is following you," said Steve Shimberg, a Republican EPW Committee staffer from 1981-1997, the last seven years of which he served as Chafee's committee staff director. "In fact, they're building an army against you."
"He basically got a fist in the dike and kept it there," Billings added.
Former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) took over as chairman of the EPW Committee in late 1999 following Chafee's death. For Smith, the promotion meant a platform to shepherd Everglades restoration legislation into law with the help of the Clinton administration, an effort that is considered by many to be the last big environmental bill to make it all the way to a president's desk.
Smith said in an interview that he was able to win over GOP leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers in a way Chafee could not. "When I said something about the Everglades or some other environmental issue, they couldn't just throw it aside," Smith said.
The George W. Bush era
Smith briefly kept hold of the EPW Committee's gavel during President George W. Bush's first term in 2001. But six months in, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont accused Bush of backtracking on key education and environmental campaign pledges. Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent, a move that flipped Senate control into the Democrats' hands and further inflamed partisan tensions.
Democrats rewarded Jeffords by giving him the chairmanship of the EPW Committee, and the party repeatedly used the panel to challenge the Bush administration on environmental issues. Then, in 2002, Jeffords narrowly passed out of committee a bill that would have limited both conventional air pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who faced his own tough re-election bid that year, was the lone Democrat to vote against the bill. He joined a united Republican Party against the climate legislation and Democratic leaders never brought it up on the Senate floor. "There clearly was some effort to stand hard because of Jeffords trying to push that through," Smith recalled.
Both parties stayed in their respective corners on environmental issues under Inhofe, who took over when the Republicans regained the Senate in 2003. Environmentalists despised the Oklahoman for his declaration that man-made global warming was "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
And Inhofe antagonized them more with hearings critical of the media's coverage of the issue, as well as by extending an invitation to Michael Crichton, the late science fiction writer who had written a novel depicting global warming as something concocted by environmentalists.
Looking back on Inhofe's tenure, former aides see a time when much was accomplished whenever the committee returned to its traditional jurisdictional issues, including transportation and water resources. "He really enjoyed getting into the nitty gritty of the highway formula," said Andrew Wheeler, a former EPW Committee staff director.
Boxer's rise to the chairmanship in 2006 -- the first for a Californian since Republican Sen. Leland Stanford in the late 19th century -- pushed the committee even further down the partisan road. While sources on both sides of the aisle are quick to note that she did team up with Inhofe in 2007 to override Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act -- a first for Congress during that administration, that was largely a blip on the radar.
The EPW Committee under Boxer has held dozens of hearings on global warming, but none yet have been dedicated to the nuances of the cap-and-trade program that the panel is considering passing this fall.
One former Senate GOP aide said Boxer had already established her reputation as a partisan flame thrower while serving as a back-bench Democrat on the committee. The staffer recalled Boxer often arriving on the Senate floor for speeches just as the West Coast evening newscasts were getting ready to air.
"It was like clockwork," the former aide said. "She seemed more interested in promoting herself than getting the work done. Those kinds of reputations linger. It's very hard to overcome them, even as you age and mellow. That impression is the one that sticks."
Smith, who lost his own re-election bid in the 2002 New Hampshire Republican primary, said Boxer made it more difficult for herself this year when she chastised Army Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh during a hearing for calling her "ma'am" instead of senator.
"That hurt her badly among a lot of people," said Smith, who is now flirting with an independent bid for the Florida seat now held by Sen. George LeMieux (R). "You have a responsibility there, sometimes larger than your own view."
Asked to size up the Senate EPW Committee in 2009, Inhofe acknowledged, "I'd say it's been pretty dysfunctional this year."
24/7 news, environmental politics
There are other explanations too beyond the personalities.
As a whole, the Senate Republican caucus has seen its moderate ranks diminish ever since the early 1990s. Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) replaced his father upon his death in 1999 but lost a re-election bid in 2006 to Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a longtime EPW Committee member, did not show much interest in environmental issues until the end of his career, when he co-authored a climate bill with Boxer and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
"John Warner was the last of his breed," said Weiss with the Center for American Progress.
These days, Republicans count only a handful of moderates within their ranks, starting with the two Mainers. "If Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins wanted to get on that committee, they wouldn't be able to," Weiss added.
Elsewhere, many say environmental politics weigh heavily on the committee's dynamics, especially as national green groups take a more prominent role fundraising and campaigning on behalf of their chosen candidates. By doing that, Wheeler said, "You're obviously going to politicize the business of the committee."
Current and former senators and their aides also see the chamber in a different light than the fruitful period of the 1960s and 1970s when the bulk of the nation's environmental laws were written.
"When you're only here Tuesday through Thursday and all of your time here during the day is down the hall dialing for dollars, that says to me it's pretty hard building relationships," said Shimberg, who now works as an attorney at DLA Piper.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) served on the EPW Committee from 1983 until his first retirement in 2001. He came back to the Senate -- and the committee -- in 2003. These days, Lautenberg said the 24/7 news cycle and growth in the American population have something to do with the strained politics of Capitol Hill.
"We live in a world that's gotten at a much faster pace," Lautenberg said. "When you're moving at these speeds, things happen. There is a degree of rudeness that comes in in getting things done."
The current EPW Committee roster only adds to the partisanship as some of the party's most strident voices push for seats on the committee. And there is also the Democrats' 12-7 majority, the largest ever for one party over another on the modern day EPW Committee. That is a big enough lead that the committee leaders do not need to worry about the votes from Republicans, or even moderate Democrats like Baucus and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, if they want to pass a bill.
"It's tough," Smith said. "You have to recognize if you're one of the seven Republicans, there's nothing you can do to stop anything. ... What else can you do? You become basically an obstructionist."
A current Senate Republican staffer said another part of the partisan problem is Boxer's plan to move such a sweeping piece of legislation.
"If you do things on a smaller, case-by-case basis, do the work in the weeds, you get more compromises," the aide said. "If you do sweeping, mind-blowing, thousand-page bills, of course it's going to cause major strife between the members. It's going to become political. It's going to become more of a theater, circus-like atmosphere."
And then there is also the fact that the committee's two leaders -- Boxer and Inhofe -- represent extremes from within their own party. And they in turn set the tone for other members of the committee, a mood that makes it difficult for moderate Democrats and Republicans to capture 60 votes and pass the climate bill.
"It'd be fair to say that the Boxer-Inhofe relationship is defined or defines the general GOP-Democratic relationship in the Senate and in the countryside," Billings said. "I think that Inhofe very definitely reflects the base of the Republican Party. And I think [Boxer] reflects the base of the Democratic Party. I don't think either one of them gives a damn about the middle of either party because they don't have to."