Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown hits Donald Trump’s Washington amid pitched partisan fights

'Belly up to the bar and start spending money' on roads, infrastructure, Jerry Brown says

Jerry Brown says the state needs to spend some money to maintain its dams, roads and other public works during a Feb. 24, 2017 press conference at the Capitol. Video courtesy of the California Channel.
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Jerry Brown says the state needs to spend some money to maintain its dams, roads and other public works during a Feb. 24, 2017 press conference at the Capitol. Video courtesy of the California Channel.

Gov. Jerry Brown will arrive in Washington, D.C. just in time for a week’s worth of pitched partisan battles on issues of consequence to Californians.

On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by California Republican Devin Nunes, was holding a hearing on Russian activities during the last presidential election, featuring testimony from FBI Director James Comey. Monday also marked the start of the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He’s going into Washington in the middle of a three-ring circus.

Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution research fellow and speechwriter for former Gov. Pete Wilson

As Brown prepares to leave town Thursday, the Republican-led House is expected to take up the contentious repeal and replacement of the Obamacare heath care law, an effort that has split their ranks and could cut coverage for millions of Californians.

“He’s going into Washington in the middle of a three-ring circus,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow and speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Unlike governors who proceeded him, Brown is keeping his options open. His only scheduled events so far are closed-door meetings of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization that is working to prevent catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction. A Saturday announcement from the Democratic governor’s office said additional meetings with government leaders and others will be added to the schedule.

The trip is a chance for Brown to engage the Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders on potential areas of mutual interest. “In this regard, this is where it’s ‘Nixon goes to China,’” Whalen said, invoking the political metaphor from the president’s 1972 travels to the People’s Republican of China, which have come to represent a politician taking actions that, if done by somebody else, would upset their own supporters.

“The ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment wasn’t Nixon in Tiananmen Square. It’s when he actually sits down and talks shop with Mao Zedong,” Whalen said. “What I am looking for is if (Brown) actually sits down and talks to Republicans, who hold all the cards in Washington right now.”

While Brown has challenged Trump and Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield over specific proposals, his focus on collaborating with the GOP on infrastructure and other issues stands in contrast to many of his Democratic colleagues.

Brown’s office has been in touch with the White House, particularly on disaster relief funding and the recent emergency at the Oroville Dam, and the governor has mostly refrained from parsing the president’s remarks, including those disseminated on social media attacking California.

“There is a lot of ‘buzz’ on a number of fronts – domestic and foreign – and I am sure that California and Washington will work in a constructive way,” Brown said last month in response to a question about Trump. “That’s my attitude. There will be different points of view, but we’re all one America, and we all have challenges that we share in common. And as we defend America, we defend California, and vice versa.”

Brown also wrote a recent letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asking her to reconsider a nearly $650 million grant to electrify Caltrain, which serves more than 60,000 riders every weekday between San Francisco and San Jose.

“Can we discuss this on the phone?” Brown added in a hand-written question scrawled at the end of the letter.

Still, he’s pushed back forcefully against other GOP-spearheaded moves. In a separate letter last week to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Brown called Trump’s decision to review federal greenhouse gas standards “an unconscionable gift to polluters.” “Once again, you’ve put the interests of Big Oil ahead of clean air and politics ahead of science,” Brown added.

His budget director, Michael Cohen, after analyzing Trump’s budget blueprint, said it was “hard to know where to begin,” calling the spending plan “a complete withdrawal of the federal government’s commitment to working with states to solve the critical issues of the country – from environmental protection and emergency preparedness to transportation and other infrastructure.”

And Brown, following a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, said the GOP repeal and replacement effort of Obamacare “is a really dumb idea and will cause millions of Americans to suffer.”

But for Republicans, facing pressure over the 14 million Americans who stand to lose health coverage, meeting with Brown could help, Whalen said.

“They need to push back against that story,” he said of the anticipated drop in coverage highlighted by Democrats. “One way to push back is to show that you’re talking to the other side, you’re listening to a Democratic governor, and taking their input.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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