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Sen. James Inhofe has worn a lot of hats in his decades-long political career — firebrand conservative, global-warming skeptic and defender of earmarks, to name just a few.
But the Oklahoma Republican might be facing his most challenging role yet as he works to bridge the sizable gap between Senate and House Republicans over reauthorizing federal transportation programs.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is on her second go-round with Inhofe on writing a transportation bill, praised the role the committee’s ranking member has played.
“It’s bridging the gap between House Republicans and the bipartisan Senate approach. There’s no divide between Sen. Inhofe and I, and it’s been a very important effort I think,” Boxer said.
Inhofe “has been just the best partner for me as chairman ... in the best traditions of how the highway bill has been done until now,” she added.
Inhofe argues that there are only two major differences between this conference committee and the one he chaired in 2005, the last time a transportation bill was passed.
“Republicans were [in the] majority, and I was chairman. So we pretty much ran this thing in a way that was in concert with the House. And it’s not all that different now,” Inhofe said.
The key differences, according to Inhofe, have been “the lack of a House bill” and the fact that “we’ve got a lot of new people, and they’re not familiar with the process. … Back in ’05, they’d all been through it and they knew what the process was.”
That has forced him into a new role, acting as a diplomat to the House, where he served from 1987 to 1994.
Over the past several weeks, Inhofe has engaged the House conferees to find common ground and bring them along to the notion that the Senate’s bill has much of the conservative agenda’s items in it.
For Inhofe, part of the problem is that so many of the Republicans on the conference committee have committed themselves to an incredibly narrow view on spending.
“They would like to be against anything with a lot of zeros in it,” Inhofe said, arguing that this mindset is ultimately counter to the conservative position.
“There is a conservative position in this. And that is to have a bill. Because if you don’t have a bill, there’s only one other choice, you have to do extensions.” And those, he said, result in “throwing away a third of the money that should be spent on highways. And I just can’t let that happen.”