WASHINGTON — The Senate's approval Wednesday of a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill gives Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer a prize that has sometimes eluded her: a newly polished reputation for legislative deal-making.
Politically and technically complex, the 632-page bill had to overcome numerous ambushes, obstacles and slippery surfaces. Its approval was not a foregone conclusion, despite the appearance of the 74-22 final vote Wednesday.
"This was a bill that brought us together," Boxer said, "and Lord knows, it's hard to find moments when we can come together."
The Senate's action now puts pressure on the House, where Republican leaders are stuck in a ditch over their own transportation bill. Time is short, as the nation's current law authorizing federal transportation programs expires March 31.
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As chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer would play a crucial role in any future negotiations with the House. For the past five weeks, she already has been steering the legislation through the Senate floor.
Boxer didn't lose any Democrats on the final vote, and she lured 22 Republicans, including some of her ideological polar opposites.
"This is probably one of the most significant pieces of legislation of the year," enthused Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. "When it gets down to getting down to something we really need to do, it gets done."
The 77-year-old Inhofe is the senior Republican on the public works panel, and one of the most conservative members of the Senate. The 71-year-old Boxer is one of the most liberal, and her Capitol Hill mark has often been a rhetorical one. She's passed bills in her 29-year congressional career but also has tilted at a good number of windmills, as in the failed 2009 bid for big climate-change legislation.
With the climate-change bill, Boxer insisted her sole responsibility was to get the bill through her Democrat-controlled committee, which she did before the bill whimpered out in 2010. She met a stricter, and more tangible, measure of success with Wednesday's passage of the transportation bill, which the Obama administration supports.
"We've had some scuffles along the way," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, but added that "this is an opportunity to talk about how good the Senate can be."
Part of the maneuvering involved rallying interest groups from across the political spectrum, which in turn could lean on their traditional congressional allies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, supports the Senate bill, as does the AFL-CIO federation of labor unions.
The bill had to clear four separate committees as well as a thicket of amendments, some of which might have crashed the bill. In what became an endurance contest, the Senate voted on 24 amendments and procedural matters concerning the transportation bill from the time it first came up Feb. 9.
Republicans failed, for instance, in efforts to add approval for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and religious waivers from the Obama administration's health insurance policies.
By the time the Senate was casting its final vote shortly after noon on Wednesday, Boxer was being greeted by her colleagues with a succession of hugs, handshakes, backslaps and — from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. — a semi-awkward fist bump.
"It's finding the sweet spot between parties...at a time when everything is contentious," Boxer said.
Making the job harder, congressional leaders have given up the earmarks that greased passage of past transportation bills. The last big bill of its kind, passed in 2006, included 6,371 earmarks, including hundreds for California projects.
The current Senate bill, by contrast, omits the word "California" altogether. The Senate bill is not designed to address rail issues, leaving to another day the debate over the future of federal support for California's controversial high-speed rail program.
The Senate bill is largely funded by a federal gas tax, and for the most part keeps federal transportation spending levels steady.
The competing bill passed by a House committee on Feb. 3 cost $260 billion over five years, funded in part through new oil-and-gas drilling revenues from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. House Speaker John Boehner has since stumbled in his efforts to rally Republicans, prompting speculation that the House might simply take up the Senate version.
"Bipartisanship came through," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., "and hopefully, this will be a lesson for us all."
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