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The fight over a toxic chemical bill announced two weeks before Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg’s death has gotten deeply personal, with Lautenberg’s widow making calls to Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, to advocate for the legislation, according to multiple sources familiar with the talks.
Boxer has concerns with the chemical safety legislation, revolving largely around potential pre-emption of California law and another provision that troubles trial lawyers, as CQ Roll Call reported Tuesday. EPW committee Democrats are scheduled to meet with trial lawyers Thursday in an emergency gathering to discuss the bipartisan bill brokered by Lautenberg and Republican David Vitter of Louisiana, with the help of Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
But the personal nature of the lobbying on the bill from Boxer and her committee staff director, Bettina Poirier, has created an uncomfortable situation for other Democrats on the panel, many of whom are afraid to get in the middle of an internal fight between a chairman and a deceased former colleague.
Multiple sources confirmed that Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg has reached out to Boxer, whom she considers a friend, to discuss the legislation. When CQ Roll Call asked Boxer in an interview if she had communicated with members of the Lautenberg family about the bill, the California Democrat said, “My relationship with the Lautenberg family is private.” Boxer’s office declined to comment further.
Manchin told CQ Roll Call he briefly discussed the future of the bill with Englebardt Lautenberg at her husband’s funeral.
Questions from Boxer and her staff about whether the late senator was mentally able to sign off on the bill have created the most tension, especially for allies of the legislation and Lautenberg staffers, according to multiple aides and members involved in the talks.
The bill would implement the first changes in chemical law in nearly 40 years and it was supposed to be the capstone of a long legislative career in which Lautenberg had pursued new federal standards for toxic chemicals.
The rhetoric over the bill became more personal in the days following the New Jersey Democrat’s June 3 death, exemplified by an emotional email, obtained by CQ Roll Call, that was sent June 13 by a Lautenberg aide.
A coalition of environmental groups — including the Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth and others — had issued a statement against the Lautenberg-Vitter bill. The statement said the compromise was “largely authored by Louisiana Senator David Vitter” and that the best way to “honor” Lautenberg would be to pass a stronger bill.
Supporters of the legislation say Poirier’s lobbying influenced the outside environmental groups to take this position.