WASHINGTON — Three years ago, a freshman member of Congress from Los Angeles, Rep. Xavier Becerra, shocked his colleagues when he brazenly locked horns with the crusty chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
A promising career seemed to have suffered a serious self-inflicted wound, Becerra's supporters feared.
They needn't have worried. The chairman, the redoubtable Dan Rostenkowski, sits in jail, convicted of mail fraud for misusing his office.
Becerra on Thursday was elected to Rostenkowski's former fiefdom, becoming the only Latino Democratic member--and perhaps the first--to serve on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the nation's massive social programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Because Ways and Means is considered an "exclusive" House committee, Becerra will have to give up his other two committee assignments, most notably his post on the Judiciary Committee, where he has been an important moderating voice on immigration reform.
But he will soon ascend to an even taller platform from which to lead on Latino issues: in January he will almost certainly be elected chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus. That election was scheduled for Thursday but was put off until January. Becerra, only 38, is expected to win the caucus job hands down.
"This guy is starting to accumulate significant power at a very early stage in his career. His is a real rising star in his party," said Robert T. Matsui, a veteran California Democrat from Sacramento who is a member of the Ways and Means Committee.
"Becerra will be a major addition," Matsui said, "because on tax issues, he represents about 20 million people in the Greater Los Angeles area, including San Diego, because he's the only Southern Californian on the committee."
(Becerra's 30th District starts west of Downtown and encompasses Koreatown, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Mid-Wilshire, Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights. He joins four other Californians on Ways and Means, two from each party. Of those, Republican Rep. Bill Thomas represents the southernmost district, based in Bakersfield.)
The motion picture industry, high-tech firms, aerospace--anybody that deals with taxes--will be advantaged, Matsui said, by Becerra being on the committee.
First elected in 1992, Becerra wanted a slot on Ways and Means since Day 1. His interest in tax law had been piqued during his years in the Assembly, when he saw the power of tax law to bring about broad social changes.
His humble background also had a lot to do with it.
Born in Sacramento, the youngest of four children, he did not realize his family was poor until he journeyed to upscale Palo Alto to attend Stanford University, where he studied economics and earned a law degree.
"Here's my background: my folks never made a lot of money, were never quite middle class, did physical labor, not white-collar work, struggled to get their kids to college because they never got there," Becerra said. "A lot of immigrants reflect that background. It just so happens that my ancestors were Latino."
His ethnic roots have made him a strong advocate for immigrant rights and led him to fight against the welfare reform bill that passed Congress this year.
A staunch liberal, he stands to the left of his more centrist colleagues, even in his own party. But his reputation for decency and pragmatism has earned him respect from his foes for seeking middle ground on divisive issues such as tax cuts and welfare.
"In the short term, I could not support anything near what the Republicans are calling for in tax cuts," he said. "I am not convinced that we need to cut taxes before we balance the budget.
"But I want to make sure those in the middle class and below aren't squeezed. Whenever there is talk of tax reform, those with high incomes are able to wheel and deal and ultimately benefit from the changes. We've seen that the rich have gotten richer and the middle class is stuck."
Becerra was active in trying to shape the welfare reform bill, signed by President Clinton--with reservations. "That's one of the reasons I got elected to the committee."
A well-placed congressional source said that Becerra's hard work on developing a Democratic alternative to the Republican welfare plan that eventually passed played a large role in his winning the Ways and Means seat. Sixteen members were vying for three spots, and Becerra had to beat out two other Latino aspirants.
"I've said all along that we need to correct some of the provisions in the bill that affect illegal immigrants, children and people on food stamps. I want to help the president keep his promise to fix it."
Becerra's straight-shooter image has earned plaudits even from political adversaries. Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley, whose tough views on immigration collide with Becerra's more liberal outlook, praised his fellow Judiciary Committee member.