WASHINGTON — Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have served longer together than any other pair of California senators — 20 years — and will soon replace Iowa’s team as the current longest-serving tandem.
In a chamber where the presence of spittoons and snuffboxes testifies to the power of tradition, that historically would have meant they could exert more influence on behalf of the state.
For generations, seniority has aided senators in delivering federal largesse back home. West Virginia is dotted with projects named after the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the state’s long-serving senator and Appropriations Committee chairman.
But Feinstein and Boxer are poised to move up at least to Nos. 11 and 12 in the 100-member chamber — and higher in their Democratic Party ranks — in an era of austerity, when Congress is under pressure to rein in spending. And they are doing so at a time when newcomers feel emboldened to take on the veterans, at times publicly.
The benefits — and limits — of seniority were recently on display.
Boxer, 72, used her position as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee to write language into a bill that is likely to bring more money to the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.
Feinstein, 79, was unable to persuade the Senate majority leader to include her proposed assault-weapons ban in a broader gun measure. In one hearing in which she pushed the ban, her understanding of the Constitution was openly challenged by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a newcomer from Texas.
“Seniority can never be underestimated in the Senate,” said Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Still, he added, “as leadership controls the agenda and the negotiations with the House and the White House, the role diminishes somewhat.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said seniority had become less significant in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle, which valued things like being able to “throw a punch” on television. “The institutional powers of the Senate are giving way now to modern politics,” he said. “You can be very new to the Senate and capture the nation’s imagination.”
Since Feinstein and Boxer made history in 1992 by becoming a state’s first pair of women senators, they have traveled in separate orbits, with their own political styles and legislative priorities.
Although they call themselves friends, they’re not best buddies. They confer, their staffs say, when necessary. They meet monthly for dinner, not as a twosome but with the other female senators, a group that now numbers 20. They occasionally break ranks: Boxer, who has promoted alternative energy projects to fight global warming, didn’t sign on to a Feinstein bill to put a wide swath of the Southern California desert off-limits to solar and wind power projects.
But they have put up a united front on many issues — together seeking to limit helicopter noise over Los Angeles neighborhoods, advance a long-stalled federal courthouse project in downtown Los Angeles and strengthen flood protection in the Sacramento area — and forged a relationship that is stronger than that of many other Senate teams.
“They have recognized that they could both be successful if they cooperated, without being best friends,” said Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political scientist who wrote “Partners and Rivals: Representation in U.S. Senate Delegations.” “It’s a mutually beneficial working relationship.”
Those seeking help generally decide between Boxer and Feinstein based on their committee assignments and personal interests. Feinstein, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, often takes the lead on spending issues, while Boxer generally takes the lead on environmental and transportation issues that come under her panel’s purview.
Three lobbyists who spoke on the condition that they not be named — to preserve working relationships — said they saw Feinstein as less partisan and closer to the center than the unabashedly liberal Boxer, who serves as the Senate Democrats’ chief deputy whip. Feinstein is among a bipartisan group of senators working to strike a deal on changes to immigration laws that would ensure enough agricultural workers are available to pick crops.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe called Feinstein the county’s go-to senator mainly because of her familiarity with local-level issues (she is a former San Francisco mayor). But he praised Boxer, noting that she used her committee chairmanship last year to push through Congress an expansion of a federal loan program sought by Los Angeles officials to speed up transportation projects.
They can be competitive, but Senate Historian Don Ritchie noted: “There really is not a single U.S. senator who doesn’t have a strong ego. That’s a requirement of the job.” Any rivalry can benefit the state, Schiller said. “It forces them to work harder.”
Boxer used her relationship with the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), then the defense appropriations subcommittee chairman, to secure funding in 2007 to establish a San Diego facility to allow wounded service members from the West to undergo treatment and rehabilitation closer to home. Feinstein has used her position on the Appropriations Committee to try to keep federal funds flowing to California for jailing illegal immigrants, arguing that local and state taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of Washington’s failure to fully control the border.
Mark Kadesh, a former Feinstein chief of staff, said seniority didn’t necessarily make a senator more effective, noting that Feinstein, as a rookie, won passage of a federal assault weapons ban and a desert protection bill.
“But if you were an effective senator, it gives you more opportunities to be effective,” he said.
Still, there are limits, as the defeat of Feinstein’s assault-weapons ban showed: No matter the ranking, each senator has a single vote.
“Passing an assault-weapons ban is still going to be tough for a senator, whether No. 1 or 100,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
Feinstein, reelected last year to a six-year term, is the state’s senior senator; she defeated an appointed senator and took office about two months before Boxer was sworn in. Boxer was last reelected in 2010.
Although other pairs of senators from the same state have served longer in Senate history, Feinstein and Boxer are the first Californians — and first women — to serve together for 20 years, Ritchie said.
Although both chair committees, their rise in seniority could give them an opportunity to take the gavels of different committees when more attractive ones open up.
Feinstein, in an interview, said her legislative skills were more important to her success than her seniority.
“I’ve never even paid any attention to what number I was,” she said. “What’s important is being effective.”
Boxer said she didn’t know where she would rank in seniority in the next Congress. “I just know I’m moving up.”