The Democrats' newly won majority in the Senate will mean shifts in committee chairmanships in the 110th Congress, which begins in January.

Among committees that oversee construction-related legislation, perhaps the most dramatic change will be at the Environment and Public Works Committee, where liberal Barbara Boxer of California is in line to take over from conservative James Inhofe of Oklahoma. The League of Conservation Voters gave Boxer a 100% grade on its "National Environmental Scorecard" for the second session of the current Congress. Inhofe received a zero from the league.

Boxer "has been one of the staunchest environmental advocates in the Senate, which is a strong contrast with Senator Inhofe," says Liz Birnbaum, vice president for government affairs with American Rivers. Birnbaum expects Boxer's priorities to include toxic-substance issues, as well as wetlands and endangered species conservation. Boxer also has been a strong critic of the current state of the Superfund hazardous-waste program.

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  • Besides having jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency, the "EPW" panel has responsibility for federal highway policy, and took the lead in the Senate in drafting the highway titles of last year's SAFETEA-LU transportation measure and the big highway bills that preceded it. Looking at Senate votes over the past three years leading up to SAFETEA-LU Boxer's votes show consistently support for increased infrastructure investment, says David Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for government affairs. Bauer also notes that voters in Boxer's state strongly approved major transportation spending measures on the Nov. 7 ballot.

    A major item of unfinished business for the committee is a new Water Resources Development Act. Inhofe helped push a WRDA bill through the Senate earlier this year. Before the pre-election recess, he was negotiating a compromise final version of the legislation with the House, which had approved its version in 2005. It's unclear whether Congress will approve a final WRDA during the coming lame-duck session. "It's like reading tea leaves at this point," says Birnbaum.

    Looking at other Senate committees, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, one organized labor's strongest allies on Capitol Hill, is expected to chair the Health, Education Labor and Pensions panel, replacing Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Kennedy said Nov. 8 one of the chief priorities will be seeking an increase in the federal minimum wage.

    At Appropriations, Robert Byrd of West Virginia is expected to take the gavel again, succeeding Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). Byrd has been on Appropriations since he came to the Senate in 1959 and has chaired the committee twice before during his long tenure in the chamber. Constructoin industry officials know him as a long-time advocate of public works spending.