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James Inhofe, iconoclastic former senator from Oklahoma, dies at 89 ...

James Inhofe iconoclastic former senator from Oklahoma dies at 89
Former Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., a fierce partisan warrior who worked across the aisle, has died, according to the Tulsa World.

Former Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who was a partisan warrior but nevertheless found ways to forge bipartisan ties on issues such as infrastructure and military policy, has died, according to the Tulsa World. He was 89.

First elected to the House in 1986, then to the Senate in 1994 before he resigned early last year, Inhofe was one of the most conservative members of Congress, especially on defense, energy and the environment. Despite his hard-line approach to many policy matters, the affable Inhofe was effective at selectively compromising with Democrats to get certain bills passed.

In the 117th Congress, Inhofe was the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after having served as chairman from late 2018 through 2020.

Inhofe enjoyed a genuinely deep friendship with the committee’s current chairman, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who, like Inhofe, is an Army veteran.

“He’s a gentleman, and he’s someone who is very sincere in all he does,” Reed said of Inhofe in 2019. “We have a relationship in which we might disagree, but we keep everybody — each other, I should say — informed of where we are.”

Likewise, as a long-serving member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe had a kinship with former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, with whom he worked — and with whom he often disagreed — over many years when she was the committee’s top Democrat and he the top Republican.

“We are total opposites,” Inhofe said of himself and Boxer at the time, “but we have a genuine love for each other.”

Sen. James Inhofe is seen at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in January, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A fierce defense hawk

Despite the flashes of occasional agreement with Democrats, Inhofe was mostly a die-hard conservative. He repeatedly urged, for example, that the national defense budget grow as much as possible.

Inhofe argued in recent years that a growing military threat from China animated his desire to see defense spending grow. He tirelessly called attention to advances by China on systems such as hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence.

Indeed, regardless of what the threat was seen to be at any given time, Inhofe long advocated for virtually every type of defense program — from missile defense to warships to nuclear weapons.

When Washington enacted caps on defense and nondefense spending from fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2021, Inhofe decried the limits on defense spending as destructive of U.S. security, though the drawing down of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was the primary reason for a decline in defense spending during those years.

Unlike his predecessor as the Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Inhofe only occasionally criticized military programs for overruns, technical snafus or scandals.

Inhofe is pictured with Sen. John McCain at a Senate Armed Services hearing in May, 2004. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

In 2021, Inhofe was an outspoken critic of President Joe Biden’s defense policies, nowhere more loudly than on the shambolic withdrawal of U.S. troops and civilians from Afghanistan.

Inhofe also unstintingly assailed Biden’s proposed requirements for vaccinating U.S. troops, Defense Department civilians and contractors against COVID-19.

When Donald Trump was president, Inhofe was one of his most gung-ho supporters in general and on defense matters in particular. He supported Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Trump’s negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un.

Inhofe had long criticized Democrats for backing “calendar-based” withdrawals from Iraq. But he commended Trump in 2020 for agreeing with the Taliban to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and remove all U.S. forces by May 2021 as long as the Taliban honored its commitments.

In July 2020, Inhofe vowed to excise from the final fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill a provision that would have required the military to expunge homages to the Confederacy from its installations. He made the promise to Trump himself in a phone call, audio of which was later leaked to the New York Times. But Inhofe was not able to fulfill that promise, as the provisions remained when Congress overrode a Trump veto of the final bill.

A devout Presbyterian, Inhofe long opposed same-sex marriage. He opposed the 2010 law that cleared a path for gay men and women to serve openly in the military, and he resisted opening combat jobs to women.

Inhofe worked to stem the problem of sexual assault in the military, but he sided for several years with the Pentagon’s opposition to professionalizing decisions on when to prosecute such allegations.

An igloo made by Inhofe and his family is seen at the corner of Independence Avenue and 3rd St., SE, in February, 2010 after a winter storm dumped over two feet of snow throughout the Washington area. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A snowball on the Senate floor

On the environment, Inhofe had a lengthy track record of denying the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and human actions are contributing to it. He chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee in the 108th, 109th and 114th congresses, and served six years as its ranking member.

He published a book in 2012 called “The Greatest Hoax,” espousing his views that climate change science is part of a conspiracy by liberals to increase regulations and taxes.

Most memorably, he brought a snowball to the Senate floor in 2015 to needle his Democratic colleagues about the issue.

“We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, do you know what this is?” Inhofe asked on Feb. 26 as he took his snowball from the Capitol grounds out of a plastic bag. “It’s very, very cold out.”

Climate activists and environmental groups, he said, “will cling to any extreme weather-related headline to make their case for global warming and to instill the fear of global warming in the American people.”

During the Biden administration, Inhofe kept up his steadfast opposition to regulation of industry, especially when it comes to energy companies, which have a huge presence in Oklahoma.

When Trump was in the White House, Inhofe strongly backed the administration’s efforts to more loosely regulate these industries.

Inhofe is thanked by California Sen. Barbara Boxer during a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing in February, 2010. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

But Inhofe could also reach across the aisle. As the Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking member in 2012, he helped get a two-year surface transportation bill to the president’s desk by working closely with Boxer. He had to convince colleagues not only that passing the $120 billion measure made policy sense, but also that it would aid the GOP at the polls.

As for his personal life, Inhofe had many struggles. He overcame staggering trauma in 2013 — quadruple bypass surgery in October, followed a month later by the death of his son Perry in a plane crash.

Yet he continued to work with little time off. And he emerged from those experiences saying the support he had gotten from Senate Democrats made it more likely he would reach across the aisle.

Oklahomans tended to find Inhofe’s stubborn nature to be endearing. After buying a stunt airplane months before his 78th birthday, Inhofe told the Tulsa Rotary Club that he would quit running for reelection only “when I can no longer fly an airplane upside down.”

His love of flying factored into his congressional work. He had about 50 years of experience as a pilot, and a few near-death experiences.

Inhofe is seen in October, 1994, piloting a plane en route to Bartlesville, Okla. (Chris Martin/CQ Roll Call)

In 2010, he landed his twin-engine Cessna 340 on a runway that was closed for repairs on a trip to his vacation home on South Padre Island, Texas. After he was forced to take remedial training by the Federal Aviation Administration, Inhofe pushed a bill through Congress giving pilots whom the agency accuses of wrongdoing more authority to review the evidence against them. President Barack Obama signed it in 2012.

Inhofe was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and his parents moved to Tulsa in 1942 in search of jobs in the insurance industry. Inhofe inherited their penchant for business; at 15, he worked as a door-to-door salesman. He continued lived just three houses away from the one in which he was raised.

After two years as an Army private in the late 1950s, Inhofe followed his parents into insurance, then became a real estate developer. As a businessman, he became frustrated with an “over-regulated society,” which launched him into a 10-year career in the Oklahoma legislature.

Inhofe lost a 1974 campaign for governor to Democrat David L. Boren. Elected mayor of Tulsa in 1978, Inhofe was defeated for reelection in 1984. He bounced back two years later and picked up a House seat, taking 55 percent of the vote to succeed Democratic Rep. James R. Jones.

He never cracked 56 percent in four House elections despite being in the state’s most Republican district.

Later, Boren went on to become a senator and ultimately resigned in 1994. Inhofe ran for the seat, won, and served until Jan. 3, 2023, when he resigned. Oklahoma Republican Markwayne Mullin won the special election to replace him.

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