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What’s Really Behind the Boxer-Lautenberg Feud

Forget about the unseemliness of questioning a dead man’s ability to sign off on a piece of legislation. The real issue at hand in the dustup between Sen. Barbara Boxer and supporters of the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg’s chemical safety bill is Senate protocol.

As CQ Roll Call’s Meredith Shiner has been reporting all week, Boxer began an aggressive lobbying campaign against Lautenberg’s bipartisan bill in the days after his June 3 death; in doing so, the Environment and Public Works chairwoman raised the issue of whether the New Jersey Democrat knew what he was supporting when he crafted a deal with the panel’s ranking member, Republican David Vitter of Louisiana.

But the larger problem was articulated by Boxer herself when she angrily told Shiner that she had no clue Lautenberg was even working on a bipartisan proposal. “I have no idea about how this bill was written because I wasn’t involved and only knew about it when I read about it in the papers,” she said.

It’s hard to believe that Lautenberg, before his death, didn’t think to alert the chairwoman of his committee about a major rewrite of toxic chemical laws. He served in the Senate for almost 30 years; he was undoubtedly familiar with the standard protocol of letting higher-ranking members of your party know what you’re doing.

And even if Lautenberg was guilty of an oversight in this instance, his staff should have surely known it would be a problem when they unveiled the bill, which they did just two weeks before their boss died.

It’s possible, of course, that Lautenberg didn’t want Boxer to know because he feared interference from the chairwoman might upset the compromise with the conservative Vitter. Still, he and his staff should have anticipated her reaction when she found out.

Plus, as an expert on toxic chemical laws, Lautenberg and his staff must have known that the bill would present a serious problem for Boxer, given it would pre-empt strict chemical safety laws in her home state of California.

The reason Shiner’s stories are so compellling, however, is because Lautenberg is no longer around to defend himself against the accusations and because Boxer and her staff seem to have gone about opposing the measure in a way that appears insensitive to the late senator’s legacy.

The issue came to head Thursday, when Boxer convened a meeting of EPW Democrats and argued against the bill. During that meeting, she also accused Lautenberg’s supporters of not knowing what was in the bill. That, too, seems an unwise way of battling your opponents.

She has a compelling argument to make to Democrats on the merits of the bill, without impugning senators’ judgement. The majority of environmental groups oppose the bill. A dozen organizations sent a letter to Boxer, Vitter and their House counterparts on June 12 to lay out their concerns:

Some of our concerns with the bill include a weak safety standard, which on its face allows for “reasonable” injuries to public health from toxic chemicals. The bill contains no clear deadlines for EPA action on or assessment of chemicals, few safeguards for vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women, and no minimum testing requirements for old or new chemicals. We are also troubled that [the bill] does not seem to provide fast action on and special protections from persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals and does not protect workers or communities disproportionately affected by
chemical exposures.
Furthermore, the broad language on state-level preemption could tie California’s hands and prevent the state from continuing to be a leader on toxic chemical issues. … For these and other reasons, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act is not acceptable in its current form.
It seems that both sides could have used better judgment in crafting the bill and opposing it.

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