Politics & Government

In new GOP-led Congress, will Californians in both parties make nice?

Rep. John Garamendi
Rep. John Garamendi lsterling@sacbee.com

California will have clout in the new Congress. The question is what will come of it?

With the No. 2 House Republican and the top House Democrat both hailing from the Golden State, and key committee seats potentially going to other Californians, the 55-member congressional delegation packs both power and promise.

But the nation’s largest delegation can also be Capitol Hill’s most fractious, regardless of what happens in the state’s six House races that remained uncalled as of Friday.

“We have a long tradition of not working together,” acknowledged Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, who represents a district that includes parts of several counties surrounding Sacramento and narrowly won re-election. “When we do, we have real power.”

Republicans increased their House of Representatives numbers in Tuesday’s elections to some 250 seats. The House GOP, with Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy serving his first full term as majority leader, will set the agenda, control the committees and roll the Democrats with impunity.

“We’re going to have to work with Republicans,” Garamendi said Thursday.

Republicans also now have at least a 52-member majority in the Senate, which could well increase depending on other close races that haven’t been called. This will cost Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a panel that steers transportation and water infrastructure projects, in addition to being a forum for debate over issues like climate change.

The Senate shift also will cost Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein her chairmanship of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as the lower-profile but more politically useful energy and water appropriations subcommittee, where lawmakers can provide money for local needs. California concerns, such a water, can benefit.

San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, though she presided over her party’s third straight repudiation in House elections, is not facing any public challenge to her rule. A stellar fundraiser, the 74-year-old Pelosi expects to be routinely retained as minority leader in the Nov. 18 selection.

As majority leader, the 49-year-old McCarthy will have considerable say in which bills get to the House floor and in what form. He will enjoy the aura that comes with a general presumption that he’s heir apparent to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

McCarthy’s ascension could boost Republican-led efforts to authorize new California water projects and direct more water to Central Valley farmers. Some lawmakers, including Feinstein, have hopes of moving a bill even before the new Congress starts in January.

McCarthy’s enhanced stature also means the California high-speed rail project, which he opposes, can forget about new federal aid. Another high-speed rail opponent, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, who represents the northern San Joaquin Valley, will again likely chair the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

“Republicans are going to continue to block funding,” Denham said Friday, adding that “there is growing concern among Democrats, as well.”

At the same time, Denham said he anticipates moving a passenger rail re-authorization bill that will include loan availability for California projects like the Altamont Commuter Express train. But given the ongoing drought, water, Denham said, “is going to be the number one” priority for many.

Other California lawmakers have also been putting their cards on the table.

Feinstein says she will introduce what she calls the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act. The ambitious bill would create a new 942,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument, a new 135,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument and add protections for other desert land, among other provisions.

The bill’s prospects in a Republican-led Congress are uncertain, to say the least. Feinstein’s last big California desert bill was finally passed by a Democratic-led Congress in 1994, eight years after it was first introduced by the late California Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston.

While wide-ranging immigration reform also seems unlikely in the short term, Republicans and Democrats have identified a trans-Pacific trade pact potentially important to the nation’s leading exporting state as a potential target for bipartisan cooperation.

Some California lawmakers are angling for senior positions on key panels.

Garamendi, a three-term lawmaker, wants to become the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

That would put him in a good position to shape a long-term federal transportation funding fix. California depends on federal funding for a quarter of its annual transportation budget.

“There’s no state that is in more need of infrastructure of all kinds,” he said.

The full committee ranking member slot came open with the defeat Tuesday of longtime Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia. But Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon is making a bid for it, too. He’s been on the committee for 28 years, vs. Garamendi’s six.

A close ally of Boehner, Rep. Devin Nunes, is considered a frontrunner for the post of chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. If named, Nunes would be the first lawmaker from the San Joaquin Valley to serve as chair.

Two California Democrats, Reps. Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Adam Schiff of Burbank, are potential candidates to serve as ranking minority member of the secretive 21-member panel.

This means that if Pelosi doesn’t extend the term of the current ranking member, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, then there is the prospect of the House intelligence panel’s top two members both coming from California.

Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo is Pelosi’s choice to become ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, replacing Rep. Henry Waxman, who is retiring after representing his Los Angeles district for 40 years.

Eshoo is currently the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which oversees a variety of issues at stake for California’s technology sector. But Pelosi’s endorsement of Eshoo, who represents Silicon Valley, has ruffled some feathers. Democrats value seniority, and by that standard, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey should get the nod.

“You can imagine a scenario where she makes people mad by rearranging the seniority list to support Californians,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Still, Jacobson said, attaining ranking member status won’t change the fact that Republicans will still control the committees.

“It’s not all that important,” he said, “because the minority has so little clout in the House.”