Ask Sens. James M. Inhofe and Barbara Boxer about most issues, and they will disagree.
But when it comes to building roads and bridges, the conservative Oklahoma Republican and liberal California Democrat are in lockstep. That was on full display during a rare joint interview Tuesday afternoon, as they encouraged the House to move quickly after the Senate on a six-year highway bill, rather than allow the expected three-month extension to turn into a punt right up to another deadline ahead of Halloween.
"My preferred alternative is they get our bill as quickly as possible," Boxer said. "It's not up to me or Jim to write the House bill. It's up to them. So, they're going to have to do what we did. And then, if they feel they can take our bill with very small changes we could move it in a heartbeat. If they feel they need a conference, we can do that. But frankly, I don't see why we have to wait to Halloween. We don't have to trick the people.
"If they can take our bill, and look at it and see what good faith we had, this thing could move very quickly and we don't have to wait to be tricked or treated," Boxer said.
Inhofe, the Environment and Public Works chairman, stressed that the bulk of the Senate bill has been available for the House to review for weeks, but he said the House's early departure would not affect his resolve in getting the six-year bill done.
"I have talked to members of the House about what's in this bill, and a lot of them are very supportive. Of course they would want naturally to have some things so they can say ... probably more legitimately this is ours, not the Senate's," Inhofe said. "We've done the hard work, and they can go ahead and do what they have to do."
Inhofe reiterated that the plan working through the Senate is a more conservative approach because of the inherent inefficiency of stopgap funding and the fact big projects cannot be contracted on yet another short-term extension.
"The House, I don't think, ever believed that we were going to get a six-year bill passed ... before the deadlines," Inhofe said.
The two senators are proving once again that where their interests intersect, they form a powerful odd couple. And this time, they're getting plenty of help from an equally unusual pair. Boxer and Inhofe praised Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., for their help in getting a six-year highway plan in position to get across the finish line, even if the House is scheduled to leave Wednesday for August recess.
To combat the usual instinct to kick the can, the senators also brought in outside stakeholders from their respective camps, from organized labor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The bulk of the transportation measure falls under Inhofe's committee's jurisdiction, and the Inhofe-Boxer partnership is an example of how deals get done.
"I had to back off on some of my requests, he had to back off on some of his. We both took a little poison pill we didn't want. We got a bill, 20 to nothing," Boxer said. "And I think what happened in the other committees frankly is they didn't have the same bipartisan spirit, so it was very difficult, and some of them never actually marked up at all, so it was difficult."
"They weren't preparing for this thing as timely as we were," Inhofe said. "The model I think that we can be is you have two people who are pretty well-known for their diverse philosophy from each other, and yet when some things rise to the point where it's beyond just a personal prejudiced position and it's for the good of the country, you can rise above it. I think we've seen that before. We've seen that in the education bill." (The Senate passed an overhaul of elementary and secondary education bill earlier in the summer under the leadership of Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington.)
The ability to get such a bill through the Senate is dependent on trust, and Boxer and Inhofe have worked together on transportation since 2005.
"We backed off the super poison pills, let's be clear. In other words, if Jim had attached — I don't even want to say it because he'll get mad ... we're going to repeal all environmental laws," Boxer said. "He knows he can't get that by me, and I couldn't do things you know, where I just said all the labor laws, we want to strengthen them and make labor more powerful in negotiations. Of course not."
Inhofe mentioned some of the wish-list items he had to forego.
"Endangered species things. I would [have liked] to have had something in there where we have an exemption from ... the obstacles in the construction of roads, and so you know neither Barbara or I were victorious," he said.
"I would have loved to have seen just two words in there: 'climate change,' and I knew Jim would not stand by for that, so why would I do that?" Boxer said of her colleague, who famously wrote a book calling global warming a hoax. "I think the most important lesson here is we know each other so well, and that's very helpful. We know what to say to each other to get each other really over the top mad, and we know how we can work together. So, we avoided those hot, hot, hot button issues."
Ask them about Inhofe's hearings on overreach at the Environmental Protection Agency or debate on a pending toxic substances bill, and the two senators quickly retreat to their respective partisan corners. But when they do agree — watch out.
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