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Forget the Thelma and Louise Thing : BARBARA BOXER AND DIANNE FEINSTEIN ARE WAY BEYOND THE ELECTION-YEAR ROAD SHOW. THEY ARE DEEP INTO THE WAYS AND MEANS OF THE SENATE, FIGHTING TO SURVIVE, AND MAYBE, JUST MAYBE, GETTING A FEW THINGS DONE.

It is midweek in mid-October and the Republican-controlled Congress has just launched its latest, and for them most dangerous, assault on the liberal welfare state, this time targeting Medicare and Medicaid. Barbara Boxer smears a glob of cream cheese on a bagel, picks up her freshly brewed cup of coffee and settles into one end of a couch in her warm-hued office. A dozen reporters gather around, but their questions must wait. First, the senator from California, au courant in her fashionable tweed suit and chunky heels, wants to issue a few quotable words on the Republican plan. “I call the Republican plan the ‘Dr. Kervorkian Medicaid Plan,’ ” she starts, “because, basically, it’s so bad that people will start calling Dr. Kervorkian.”

One floor up and a few hours later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein sits down at her desk, surrounded by imposing piles of bound folders, to finish drafting remarks on the GOP plan. The outcome of this work session surprises her staffers: Rather than toning down the statement’s partisan rhetoric as she normally does, the senator seems eager to let loose--but “loose” only by her own standards. The speech that Feinstein makes on the Senate floor at the end of the day makes her sound less like a combative politician than a really angry diplomat. The pink-suited matronly figure rises to the podium, her sure voice filling the chamber, to denounce the GOP plan as “revolution for revolution’s sake” and “blatant extremism” that goes “beyond the bounds of reason.”

Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are the yin and yang of the Democratic Party. One is a passionate politician who swings from the gut, who sees truth laying on the surface of an issue, ready for the taking. Boxer is a feminist populist who fights for her causes with the ardor that only a true believer can muster. The other is a restless mind who digs long and deep to find her set of truths--and still reserves the right to change her mind. Feinstein is an unpredictable moderate who gerrymanders her centrist positions from midway between ideological poles.

Often the two senators end up in the same place: Just as they both attacked the GOP’s Medicare/Medicaid plan they both voted in favor of their opponents’ welfare-reform legislation, partly as a strategic move to counteract the House’s more drastic plan. But the styles of California’s two senators are so markedly different, it’s amazing now that anyone ever bought the Thelma-and-Louise routine they took on the road in 1992, when they correctly calculated that the state’s voters were in the mood to send outsiders in skirts to Washington to shake things up.

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Feinstein and Boxer are less a unified legislative team than a microcosm of the Democratic Party’s strengths and weaknesses, its missteps and forward steps, as it tries to recapture center stage. Moderates such as Feinstein would knit together bits of the Left and the Right into a less-than-tidy, sometimes-conflicting centrist ideology that has the potential to appeal to a broader base. But in doing so, she--like President Bill Clinton--risks being accused of losing the party’s soul.

Stalwart liberals such as Boxer would sharpen the arrows in an old quiver, unapologetically pursuing the party’s historical agenda of employing Washington muscle to protect women and minorities, the environment and consumers, children and the poor. But in doing so, she, like the party’s congressional leadership, risks appearing out-of-touch with an increasingly conservative electorate.

In the 10 months since Democrats lost control of Congress, each of California’s senators has struggled to find a voice that would work from the back bench. Each followed separate paths in search of relevance for themselves and for the Democratic Party.

Each went on a mission.

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BARBARA BOXER PLUNGES INTO PARTISAN WARFARE WITH THE UNREPENTANT zeal of a sky diver who knows she’ll land 10,000 feet below feeling exhilarated, even righteous, if perhaps a little bruised. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) describes his friend as “one of the toughest partisan shooters in this building"--and Boxer revels in the description. She grins like an adrenaline junkie getting a fix as she recounts GOP presidential candidate Robert Dole’s recent pledge to “eliminate” her. Or when she describes her “Let’s have at it!” retort last summer to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after he warned that the Senate ethics panel he chairs might embarrass key Democrats if she refused to back off her call for public hearings on Sen. Bob Packwood’s sexual misdeeds.

But there is another side to Boxer, one that was largely missed this year as she waged her often lonesome campaign to convince a mostly male Senate to expose and punish one of their own for behavior historically overlooked by the institution’s unwritten code of silence. It’s the side of Boxer where the boxing gloves--her ritual prop in editorial cartoons depicting the Packwood episode--come off.

On July 25, under the gaze of naked angels floating on a Capitol room ceiling, Boxer shifted gears from partisan warrior to cautious coalition builder. “I know this is really unpleasant for everybody. It’s really unpleasant for me,” she began, softening her insistent, one-note voice. An uncharacteristically nervous Boxer had come to the weekly lunch meeting of Senate Democrats to solicit her colleagues’ support for a resolution demanding open hearings on the Packwood case.

No one had to remind Boxer that there was sympathy, even in this room, for Republican claims that she was grandstanding and interfering with the Senate’s ethics committee’s 30-month investigation of Packwood. No one needed to tell her that the last thing many senators of either party wanted right now was Chapter 2 of the torrid Anita Hill hearings. “There was no question there were people who were annoyed with Barbara Boxer,” recalls Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), vice chair of the ethics committee. “She was under enormous pressure not to take [her resolution for hearings] to the floor.”

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But Boxer had her deck in order. Before the lunch, she had lined up the support of such key leaders as Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), respected as the institution’s resident historian. At the lunch, she modestly put herself third in line to speak, following two members of the ethics committee, Bryan and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who assured the senators that they supported Boxer’s campaign. When it was Boxer’s turn to speak, she made her case not as a rabble-rouser but as an insider, drawing heavily on precedents set by Senate investigations dating back to the 1800s. “If we [break precedent] by not holding public hearings, the message will be either that we’re sweeping something under the rug or that sexual harassment is so unimportant it should be treated differently than any other egregious ethical violation,” Boxer recalls telling her colleagues. “We shouldn’t be a party to either message.”

That was hardly the voice of a lawmaker who, as Simpson suggested, wanted to “tear the joint down.” One by one, Senate Democrats at that lunch came to her side, some arguing that the Republicans were unfairly trying to make Boxer herself the issue. Only Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), spoke against Boxer’s resolution. And, as his comments made clear, his interest was in protecting Packwood. His friend, he insisted, had suffered enough.

When Boxer’s resolution came up for a vote the following week, she stunned opponents by capturing the support of every Democrat but Moynihan. Even three Republicans crossed lines to come to her defense. Her resolution narrowly failed on the largely party-line vote. But that hardly mattered. By then, Boxer had managed to turn her crusade, and herself, into front-page news, turning up the heat on the ethics committee to punish Packwood.

It’s debatable whether Barbara Boxer altered the course of the Packwood case. But one thing is clear: California’s senator has finally arrived. In the minority.

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PROTEST POLITICS HAS NEVER BEEN PART OF DIANNE FEINSTEIN’S STYLE. She prefers to change peoples’ minds in the cool recesses of private discourse, leader to leader, executive to executive. Maintain decorum, check all passions at the door and get down to work. Where Boxer sees vivid hues, Feinstein sees shades of gray.

The crusade that Feinstein embarked on during the last weeks of August, as the Packwood imbroglio played itself out in Washington, was more discreet. Feinstein’s destination: China. Her mission: to persuade her old friend Jiang Zemin, now Chinese president, to release human rights activist Harry Wu. Wu’s detention had captured the world’s attention, increasing tensions between the United States and China and throwing a wrench into First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton’s plans to appear at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. No one at the State Department was going to pretend that Feinstein held any magic key to Wu’s release, but a meeting between the pair couldn’t hurt.

When the Democrats ceded control of the Senate in January, Feinstein seemed to have trouble finding her footing. She had just staggered out of an especially nasty reelection battle against Republican Michael Huffington that left her $1.9 million in debt, only to find out that she would lose her seat on the Appropriations Committee, a post valuable for funneling dollars to California concerns. Elsewhere, she found herself defending the very legislation upon which she had built her short career in the Senatethe assault weapons ban and desert protection act--from Republican counterattack.

But by summer, much of Feinstein’s attention was turning overseas. She attacked her new assignment on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with gusto. And she appears intent on parlaying her friendship with Jiang--forged in the 1980s when she was mayor of San Francisco and he was mayor of Shanghai--into a position as a leading Senate voice on Asian affairs. But that also means she must rise to the defense of a Chinese leadership with a questionable record on human rights.

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She heaps praise on the Chinese bureaucrat who ran the Communist Party during the repression that followed the Tian An Men Square massacre. She describes Jiang, whom the White House has been reluctant to honor with a state dinner, as “the right person to lead China to a very significant destiny.”

That’s not to say that Feinstein always humbles herself before her Chinese friend. In July, a month before her trip, she wrote a terse letter to Jiang seeking the release of Wu, a U.S. citizen and her San Francisco constituent. Her husband, Richard Blum, is a close friend of Tibet’s exiled Dalai Lama and doesn’t hesitate to beat the drums about China’s human rights abuses in that region (“I remember once at dinner in Yin Tai . . . I kicked my husband under the table to say ‘enough already,’ ” Feinstein recalls.)

So the four hours of private talks that Feinstein and Blum held with Jiang Aug. 18 amid the imposing pavilions of China’s Forbidden City were spirited. The Chinese president used the occasion to relay his dismay over Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s June visit to the United States, a perceived breach of America’s one-China policy that, Jiang angrily recounted, he learned about from the newspapers. Feinstein, meanwhile, brought the message that President Clinton would be “most appreciative” of any help Jiang could provide in resolving the Wu situation.

A few days later, as Feinstein and Blum were packing their bags to leave China, an emissary from Jiang called on them, bringing the news that Wu was about to be released. “As I left from the Shanghai airport, I saw the Air China flight that was being held for Harry Wu, who was right then on a flight from Wuhan,” Feinstein recalls.

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It’s impossible to know what, if any, role Feinstein’s private talks and dinner with Jiang played in a case that had already captured international attention and was the subject of intense negotiations. At a Senate confirmation hearing two months later, U.S. ambassador-designate to China James Sasser told Feinstein: “I think it’s no accident that following your lengthy meeting . . . Harry Wu was released and came back to the United States. I would like to think that you played a very substantial role.”

But critics of Feinstein’s cozy relations with Beijing remain unimpressed. “The Chinese have a way of getting the most mileage out of their timing,” says Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a longtime friend of Feinstein’s who was intimately involved in efforts to release Wu. “This was not a case where the soft touch got Harry Wu out. The firm stand of the President of the United States and the international visibility his wife gave to the issue are what got him out.”

IMAGES FROM THE PAST BRING BOTH OF CALIFORNIA’S senators into clearer focus today. Boxer, the daughter of a middle-class lawyer from Brooklyn, N.Y., was a cheerleader for Brooklyn College’s winless basketball team. Her first political action was to organize tenants of her modest apartment building against a negligent landlord. Feinstein was the daughter of a San Francisco surgeon whose privileged life belied the abuse that she and her sisters suffered at the hands of a mentally ill mother. Her early interest in politics, sprouting at Stanford, was sidetracked only when she attempted to pursue a career as a stage actress.

And, a couple years later, these images emerge: Boxer, married to her college sweetheart and relocated to Marin County because of the area’s lush beauty, dragging her two young children along on peace marches through Golden Gate Park. Feinstein, her tempestuous first marriage filed away in divorce court, sailing across the San Francisco Bay with only her young daughter (who grew up to be a lawyer directing the San Francisco mayor’s Criminal Justice Council).

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Feinstein launched her career in public life when family connections and an elite Stanford internship helped her secure a post on the statewide women’s prison board. Her surprise election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 was billed as a “grass-roots” campaign, even though her biographer, Jerry Roberts, notes that she out-raised and outspent her rivals. Boxer’s unsuccessful 1972 bid for a seat on the Marin County Board of Supervisors, in contrast, was preceded by organizing neighborhood mothers on issues ranging from education to the Vietnam War.

Boxer describes herself as a typical woman of the ‘50s, the kind of character Debbie Reynolds would play, propelled into politics at the age of 32 by events of the 1960s, particularly the Vietnam War and the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Feinstein’s lofty ambitions were evident much earlier: She excelled at campus politics at Stanford and was restless as a wife and then single mother.

These handsome, dark-haired women who carry the lines of decades in public life in their faces--Feinstein is 62, Boxer 55--epitomize female strength in different ways: No one is likely to call Feinstein “feisty” or Boxer “tough.”

Even their sources of comfort in crisis point up differences between the two women. After Feinstein’s crushing defeat in the 1975 San Francisco mayoral race, she told Roberts that she collected herself by focusing on Japanese prescriptions for patience and acceptance found in the pages of James Clavell’s novel of Japanese feudal life, “Shogun”:

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“You have to watch a rock grow.” And “A perfect flower with a single drop of water.”

It was the first of many sources of inspiration Feinstein would draw from Eastern philosophy.

When Boxer nearly dropped out of her grueling 1992 Senate race, her two grown children, Nicole and Doug, inspired her to fight on by sitting her down to read Dr. Seuss’s words from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”:

Wherever you go,

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You’ll top all the rest

Except when you don’t

Because sometimes you won’t.

WHAT’S SURPRISING TO OUTSIDERS accustomed to seeing adjectives such as “strident” and “aggressive” attached to Barbara Boxer’s name is that she commands genuine affection from friends, some of whom sit on the other side of the political aisle. The Senate may be a mostly male club, but Boxer knows how to hang with the guys.

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When Sen. Joseph R. Biden, (D-Del.) tried to secure plum committee assignments for Boxer after her 1992 election to the Senate, he encountered strong resistance from senior leaders. They remembered her as the angry woman who led seven female members of the House on a march across the Capitol to the Senate chambers to demand an open inquiry into Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

“Isn’t she the one who marched on you, who embarrassed you?” one senator asked Biden, who was chairman of the judiciary committee during the Hill-Thomas hearings. Biden responded simply that while Boxer fights tooth and nail for her causes, she is also a team player.

Three years later, Biden insists that even the most skeptical Democrats respect Boxer. “It always amazes me how underestimated she is in California,” Biden says. “She is willing to let other people take the credit to get things done, whether it’s the desert bill, violence against women, environmental stuff, tuna and dolphins--whatever the hell it is. That’s kind of a rarity here. As a consequence, people respond to her. When she wants to get something done, she is very, very effective inside.”

Adds Sen. Bryan of Nevada: “She is not a fair-weather friend. She’ll be with you when the tide is coming in, and she’ll be with you when the tide is going out. If she takes a position, you don’t have to call her every day and say, ‘Are you still with us?’ ”

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But Boxer has plenty of enemies, primarily in the GOP, who see her as a California lightweight with a nose for cheap political symbolism. To them, she is the politician who made her name during 10 years in the House with such attention-grabbers as the Hill-Thomas march on the Senate and press conferences to disclose $7,600 military coffee pots. GOP Ethics Committee chairman McConnell played right into those stereotypes during the Packwood episode by using words like “ethics dilettante” to refer to Boxer and “frolic” to describe her campaign for open hearings.

McConnell still blames Boxer for politicizing the ethics committee and threatening its independence. On hearing that Boxer referred to the ethics chairman as “unethical,” McConnell provided this response: “Being called unethical by Barbara is like being called ugly by a frog.”

Colleagues don’t gush over Feinstein. Their comments are respectful--and distant. She is described as “senatorial,” “statesmanlike.” A typical description, from staffers and legislators of both parties, is this comment from Sen. Bryan: “She is very able. She gives California a great profile, and she is a diligent, hard-working senator who has earned the respect of her colleagues.”

In contrast to Boxer, Feinstein is a politician worth checking back with--regularly--to see if she has changed her position on an issue. Her complexity and need to have every detail fit her own internal order before she signs off is a trait that can leave colleagues baffled. “Dianne unquestionably can be frustrating,” says one senior Clinton Administration official. “You’ll work with her on 20 things, and if, on the 21st, she doesn’t like it, she’ll blast the President. You could put [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich’s name on some of her comments [about the administration] and it wouldn’t be out of place. She doesn’t behave in a politically predictable manner. That’s also part of her appeal.”

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A more recent image capturing the differences between Feinstein and Boxer emerges from the Clinton Administration’s December, 1994 decision not to designate a more than $300-million empowerment zone to Los Angeles. Even though the original empowerment zone legislation was written with L.A.'s strife-torn inner-city neighborhoods in mind, Clinton officials chose 9 other cities to receive the money, purportedly because of flaws in L.A.'s application.

“Barbara didn’t care what was in the application. She didn’t care if it was written in Hebrew. She knew she we had gotten screwed, and she was outraged on a moral, personal level,” says deputy mayor Mary Leslie. “Dianne had to be convinced. She wanted to know what was in the application. She’ll go to the facts.”

But that quality doesn’t always endear Feinstein to political players in Washington. Last year, the Clinton White House felt seared when she became one of the first Democrats to ditch its health-care-reform plan just days after the President flew to California and practically canonized her during an appearance at an important political fund-raiser in the heat of the Huffington campaign. Noting that she “reserves this right to change her mind,” Feinstein explains that she decided to reverse course on the health initiative after an outpouring of community opposition to the plan.

This year, the Republicans had trouble holding on to her vote. Despite claims during her campaign that she supported a balanced-budget amendment, Feinstein refused to support Republican legislation, concerned that their plan used Social Security taxes to offset the deficit. Later, she backed off a campaign-reform plan she had introduced with Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) amid much fanfare. This time her concern was that the plan would outlaw a practice called “bundling” that enables political action committees such as the pro-choice Emily’s List to solicit individual donations on behalf of a candidate.

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Last year, Feinstein garnered rave reviews for her work on landmark legislation designed to protect 6.3 million acres of California desert, and on the assault-weapons ban, which she relentlessly pushed forward in the face of widespread skepticism from Democratic colleagues.

Since the Democrats’ move to the minority, though, people are questioning her effectiveness. “Feinstein should be more of a player in the Senate, because things there move toward the center,” says one leading Democratic strategist. “But she’s not a deal-maker. She’s not an inside player. There is something about her style that leads her to squander of lot of power she could have.”

Some Senate staff members who watch her closely say Feinstein’s reluctance to play the tit-for-tat game that drives so much legislative business could damage her influence in the long run. “No one is going to say, ‘Well, if Dianne Feinstein is voting that way, I will, too,’ ” says one veteran staffer. “A lot gets done in the Senate by helping each other out.”

At public appearances, she exhibits the kind of charisma most politicians would sell their mothers for: a 5-foot, 9-inch figure who lights up the room with her diamond eyes and mellifluous voice. When she shakes the hand of a constituent from even the most modest background, she can make him feel--for that moment--like the most important person in the world.

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But in private, she can be haughty, abrupt, even imperious. Her cool reserve was aptly captured in the title of her 1994 biography by Jerry Roberts, “Never Let Them See You Cry.” Capitol Hill staffers say she has knowingly or unknowingly offended more than one senator, and her own staff has suffered from frequent turnovers.

Roberts’ descriptions of Feinstein early in life ring true today, particularly his quotation of a college friend who summed her up as intensely meticulous, with an underdeveloped sense of humor and irony. Roberts writes that early in her political career, Feinstein “earned a reputation as a diva--extremely demanding of her staff, volatile of mood, and often wracked by self-doubt.” Feinstein once acknowledged to Roberts: “I am demanding of staff. I’m demanding of myself, though, too.”

Feinstein’s supporters note that her political unpredictability stems in part from the fact that she operates like a chief executive, not a legislator. “She thinks in terms of what a mayor or governor needs to get the job done,” notes another administration official who often works with her. Even while lauding her friend’s legislative talents, Rep. Pelosi says: “Dianne’s real role in my mind is to be the chief executive. She was mayor for such a long time. I wish she was governor of California. I think the Senate is a place that exploits her talents . . . but I keep thinking Dianne will be governor. Now, Dianne may not be thinking that.”

But Democratic strategists clearly are. And while any decision on a 1998 race is a long ways off, California’s political hacks are already playing the odds on a race that would pit Feinstein against GOP state attorney general Dan Lungren for the throne in Sacramento.

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WITH THE TV CAMERAS rolling and press tables crammed with reporters from all over the world, it doesn’t hurt for a senator to engage in bit of name-dropping--especially if the names being dropped are Chinese. Waiting patiently in a Senate hearing room for her turn to speak, Sen. Dianne Feinstein plans to do just that, driving home her point that--based on her intimate knowledge of China--American desk-pounding about human rights violations is a futile cause.

This October hearing is a surprise second chapter to the nomination of James Sasser, the Clinton Administration’s choice to be ambassador to China. At a love fest just a week ago, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms sounded like he was going to let the nomination glide right through the Senate. But now, the North Carolina Republican, angered by news reports on the first session, is on the warpath, concerned that Sasser isn’t sufficiently sensitive to human rights abuses or the future of Hong Kong.

Concern about China’s recent human rights record cuts across ideological lines at this session. It was left to Feinstein, the committee’s junior member but a vivid presence at the far end of the horseshoe of senators, to issue the most vigorous defense of the Chinese leadership.

“I’d like to add a somewhat different perspective, Mr. Chairman,” Feinstein says. “It’s one thing to talk about human rights here. It’s another to walk in to Yin Tai and Zhongnanhai and talk about it with the president of China. And I have done that . . . . Pounding the desk here isn’t going to make China change. China is changing. And it’s the Western influence in China that’s helping the change.

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“I was appalled as anyone by the tanks at Tian An Men square, but three tanks of this government went into Waco, [Tex.] and killed 29 children. They weren’t criminals. Most of the people in Waco had no criminal record. Now those are not analogous; they are different situations. It was wrong of our government, and it was wrong of the Chinese government.”

If talking about Waco and Tian An Men Square in the same breath was designed to catch attention, Feinstein did. Human rights activists were appalled, with Pelosi decrying Tian An Men square not--like Waco--a government mistake, but a “crime against humanity. The Chinese do not view Tian An Men Square as a mistake. In fact they’ve honored the people who participated in the massacre.”

But Feinstein’s comments that day were in keeping with her complicated views about China. She insists that “what the Chinese resent is being told what to do by an America that isn’t even as old as what they would view as a half-chapter of their life. The key is to do things that are mutually beneficial.” She believes that the United States should help China develop a system of due process of law but resist linking trade and human rights. Two years after the Tian An Men massacre, in which 200,000 troops in tanks crushed 2,000 demonstrators, Feinstein offered Jiang the assistance of U.S. police officers to teach peaceful crowd-control techniques.

At lunch in the Senate dining room after the Sasser hearing, Feinstein talked not only about China but also of central Asia and the important role that region has played in her personal growth. Many months after the devastating death of her beloved second husband, Bert Feinstein, in 1978, the senator traveled with Blum to Dharamsala in northern India to meet the Dalai Lama. That journey and others that followed left profound imprints on Feinstein’s life.

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“It was sort of point/counterpoint,” she says. “God and nature and man really living in harmony in what is a very dominant Buddhist culture up there in the mountains, with no crime, never a burglary, never a robbery, never a murder. To see people live in very humble surroundings, and very humble conditions, with no animosity toward anyone else.”

Blum, who, Feinstein says, “has had a love affair with that area of the world since he was a youngster,” is an ardent trekker and remains heavily involved in humanitarian efforts in the Himalayas. But his keen interest in China also complicates Feinstein’s role as an emerging voice on U.S.-China relations. Blum has worked on behalf of investors in Chinese enterprises and has said he has personal investments in the $2- to $3-million range in China. Feinstein, a strong proponent of American investment in China, insists that those transactions don’t affect her work.

“His business interests don’t come into conflict with me at all because I don’t have anything to do with them,” Feinstein says, “and they’re very few and far between, to be honest with you.” Pelosi, meanwhile, says, “I don’t think Dianne Feinstein’s views on China would be different if her husband had investments there or not. Dianne comes by her views honestly.”

Feinstein returned from her 1978 trek with Blum to face the devastating back-to-back events of the mass suicide in Guyana of 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones, a player on the San Francisco political scene, followed by the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Within days of arriving home, events had thrust Feinstein into a mayor’s job that she had unsuccessfully fought for twice and ultimately decided that she didn’t want after all.

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As the woman who discovered Milk’s body, riddled with Supervisor Dan White’s bullets, she has a natural, heartfelt credibility on the issue of violence--on which she combines a get-tough stance on criminal penalties, like the death penalty, with liberal prescriptions for gun control. But violence also struck her more recently and closer to home. Last summer, a troubled San Francisco youth that she had taken under her wing--mentoring, sheltering on weekends, even taking on a trip to Africa--fatally shot himself with a .38 revolver. Despite Feinstein’s efforts to steer him in another direction, 19-year-old Anthony Bell had moved back into the world of drugs and guns, buying a revolver off the street that he apparently used in a deadly game of Russian roulette. “The unfortunate thing was that when I left San Francisco, I couldn’t be there” for him, she says. “I think that, if I could be there, it would be different.”

In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Feinstein successfully secured Senate passage of an amendment that would outlaw the distribution of bomb-making directions on the Internet, and another to compel manufacturers of explosives to “tag” their products so they could be traced. But from her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feinstein has criticized federal law enforcement sharply for its handling of the siege of the armed cult compound in Waco and its deadly confrontation with a white supremacist in Ruby Ridge, Ida.

On immigration, she continues to push a plan for a $1 border-crossing fee to fund beefed-up patrols, and she has proposed a counterfeit-proof identity system to thwart illegal immigrants. At times, Feinstein is sanguine about making her mark on national policy despite being in the minority. She is trying to move Senate immigration legislation more in her direction and has pressed the Justice Department to improve patrols of California’s borders. She plans to publicize her views on foreign affairs, particularly China, in forums ranging from daily newspapers to prominent academic journals. She is even toying with ways to influence a restructuring of the California school system.

But only months into her first full term (her first two years finished out Pete Wilson’s unfinished term), she also is frustrated. “I have never seen [such a] degree of partisanship until I came back to Washington” after last year’s election, she says. “I’m one that likes to work across the aisle . . . . That’s made difficult by a kind of hyperbole that goes on here.”

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The issue of the moment in Boxer’s Senate office is a dirty diaper. Boxer doesn’t think it’s really an issue--she simply points to her private restroom. “Go ahead, change him in there,” Boxer says to her daughter Nicole, whose 5-month-old baby--President Clinton’s nephew--is suddenly emitting a not-so-senatorial smell.

The scene is typical of the informality of Boxer’s office. Her desk is flooded with papers; a half-eaten bagel--the Senator’s “comfort food"--sits atop a note from a feminist leader thanking Boxer for her latest pro-choice vote. Tables around the office bulge with photos of Nicole, who is pursuing a career in the film business; son Doug, a lawyer working for Mayor Richard Riordan, and her husband Stewart, an attorney who still practices in the Bay Area. But the photo that stands out is the one showing Boxer leaning over a piano, elbow to elbow with President Clinton, belting out a song.

The scene is from Nicole’s White House wedding last year to Tony Rodham, a Miami attorney and the First Lady’s brother. Even for a family accustomed to public life, the last three years of mom-as-senator and daughter-as-a-Clinton-in-law have been a “wild ride,” says Doug Boxer. Thanksgiving at Camp David. “Family” dinners with the President and First Lady. Golf matches between Stewart and Bill. “Who would ever have imagined this for two kids from Brooklyn?,” Doug says in a reference to the modest roots of his parents.

Although Boxer says she “never, ever brings up California business” to the President at family functions, administration sources say she has enormous access to the White House that she doesn’t hesitate to use to advance her agenda. Like Feinstein, she is new enough to the Senate to remember that she’s there to represent California.

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Boxer doesn’t see herself as a liberal but rather as a proponent of a smarter, more efficient government. She voted in favor of welfare reform only after she secured an amendment requiring deadbeat parents to agree to payment schedules for child support. She persuaded Senate colleagues to ban the practice of paying salaries to military personnel convicted of serious crimes. She continues to attempt to subvert GOP plans to open up the coast of California to oil and gas drilling.

She says the Republicans are making a mistake by thinking that the public wants to eliminate national standards. “There is no need in this wide world to destroy 50 years of bipartisan consensus on Medicare, on Medicaid, on education, on the environment,” she says during an interview in her office. “They’re destroying it for two reasons. One, they want to do a tax break for the rich. The other is, they don’t really believe there ought to be a national government with national priorities, except for the military.”

Women’s causes remain at the top of Boxer’s agenda. She successfully passed an Senate resolution early in the year calling on the attorney general to protect reproductive health clinics from violent anti-abortion protesters. She secured exemptions for child pornography, child abuse and child labor laws in legislation designed to free the states from unfunded national standards. And she obtained an exemption for mammography standards in legislation to ease federal regulations. Her fight for federal funds to combat domestic violence has drawn the support not only of top Democrats but also of GOP Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch.

The Packwood fight may have worsened her already tenuous standing with the more conservative elements of the state party, convincing some party strategists that she’s merely preaching to the choir. But, according to a Times poll in September, her job-approval rating climbed from 34% to 40% over the summer. And the fight certainly helped her fund-raising, becoming the centerpiece of a summer direct-mail campaign.

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In September, director Steven Spielberg helped Boxer out by appearing at a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser at a Pacific Heights mansion in San Francisco. Two weeks later and a continent away, she enjoyed the proceeds of another fund-raiser while appearing alongside Barbra Streisand and Mets owner Fred Wilpon. The theme of that event was three kids from Brooklyn who made good.

By year’s end, Boxer’s staff expects to have stashed in the bank about $250,000, the basis of a war chest for a possible 1998 campaign against millionaire Michael Huffington, who is rumored to be eyeing Boxer’s seat as an encore to his narrow and expensive loss last year to Feinstein. Boxer isn’t intimidated by Huffington’s money. When asked about his possible candidacy, she holds up two red-nailed, manicured hands--and waves him on in.

A POPULAR WASHINGTON pastime is to speculate about whether California’s two very different female senators get along. Feinstein pulled Boxer over the finish line in ’92, and Boxer repaid her by laying low on the landmark desert-protect legislation so that Feinstein could take the credit during her second, more grueling campaign. Just as often, California’s Senate team is out of sync.

Boxer didn’t have much to say on Sept. 7 when an emotional Bob Packwood took the Senate floor to tell his colleagues he intended to resign from the Senate rather than face expulsion. But her colleague did.

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Rising to the podium, Feinstein recalled the words of her father, who told her to remember a man not by what he did last but by what he did best. “It is the sign of a wise man and even a giant man who stands and does what needs to be done and goes on to fight another day,” Feinstein said. Her tribute apparently caught Packwood off guard, and he crossed the floor to her, took her hand and cried.

“It was a very hard moment for the Senate,” Feinstein explained in an interview weeks later. “These are charges that went way back to 1969, 25 years ago. This was a man who, before I was here, was respected as a very good senator and very instrumental in expanding the picture of rights for women.”

Asked if she had ever been sexually harassed, Feinstein answered: “Oh, I’ve had plenty of people in my youth make passes at me. But I handled it.”

Of Boxer’s role in the episode, Feinstein says simply: “I think she brought it to the attention of the Senate as well she was entitled to. I have no further comment. I think she clearly brought the issue to a head, and it was resolved.”

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This was a case on which Boxer had staked her political reputation, a case her own fund-raising letter describes as a “powerful Senator” inflicting “lasting humiliation” on 17 women. Boxer, whose autobiography details an encounter with a sexually harassing college professor in her youth, has much to say about sexual misconduct in general and the Packwood case in particular--but little to say about Feinstein’s words that day. “I didn’t agree with it,” Boxer says of her colleague’s tribute to Packwood. “But she is, of course, entitled to her opinion.”

In the end, though, what probably matters more is the work that Boxer and Feinstein do in tandem, outside the national spotlight, on issues that matter to Californians but seem terribly parochial to the rest of the country: fights to clean up obscure toxic-waste dumps, battles on behalf of the poultry industry over frozen-chicken standards, attempts to keep California’s military bases off the closure list. “Dianne and Barbara are extremely aggressive and effective advocates for California,” says John Emerson, deputy assistant to President Clinton. His boss, the chief executive, has called California’s pugnacious Senate team a “one-two punch” on state issues.

But even when they work side by side, even when they share the mike and their views, California voters will have no trouble telling them apart.

“I know my state,” says Feinstein. I know what can help the people of California.”

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“I’m going to work my buns off for this state,” says Boxer.


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