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California delegation to try a bipartisan meeting

Some are skeptical it will bring lawmakers closer together. Others think it's a start. Like everything else involving the diverse group, there's disagreement.

March 03, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — In a story that has circulated around Capitol Hill for years, California's famously fractured delegation gathered for a rare bipartisan meeting and decided to send for pizza -- only to get into a fight over what toppings to order.

The tale, true or not, illustrates the difficulty of bringing together Democrats and Republicans from the largest state delegation in the House. In fact, the last time they formally met was two years ago, when stockbrokers still were recommending investors buy General Motors.

Now the full delegation has scheduled a meeting for this week. But like everything else involving the politically diverse 53-member group, there is dissension -- over whether such get-togethers would even make a difference in advancing California's interests.

"We really could be the 900-pound gorilla in the House if we acted in unison," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said.

Others, however, think that about the only time the California delegation can come together is after a natural disaster. Expecting relations between state Democrats and Republicans to improve as a result of regular meetings, said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), is like "asking people to join hands and sing 'Kumbaya' and expect the world is going to be better."

The Texas and Illinois delegations meet monthly. Asked whether Texas' meetings make a difference in efforts to promote the state's interests, Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton said, "It can't hurt."

At a time when President Obama has called for a new spirit of bipartisanship in the Capitol and when California is competing with other states for scarce federal funds, lawmakers' inability to come together "does hurt us," said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista).

Even so, said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), "California is a huge state. . . . It's always going to have a lot of influence."

It is precisely because California is so big, its population so diverse and its congressional districts so intricately drawn that the delegation ranges from conservative Republican Rep. Wally Herger of rural Chico to liberal Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters from Los Angeles.

"In politics as in geology, California is a state full of fault lines," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, noting that state lawmakers "not only represent different ideologies, but different Californias."

"Democrats are the party of cities, coastal areas, college towns and ethnic minorities. Republicans are the party of sprinkler cities and aging suburbs. Their interests come into conflict. Democratic environmentalists want to protect endangered species from Republican ranchers. Even apart from party and ideology, the state has long-standing geographical divisions. Among other things, the north has the water, and the south wants it."

"We're just so far apart on issues," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita). "You can get together and talk, but it's hard to find things that we can agree on."

Even members of the same party often break company. The state's GOP delegation last year divided over a House-passed measure that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called "absolutely essential" to preventing the federal government from shifting more of the costs of healthcare for the poor to states.

Still, California lawmakers point out that they are able to work together, one-on-one or in small groups, to promote regional or state interests.

Reps. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) last year teamed up to boost federal aid to California for jailing illegal immigrants -- a cost that state officials assert should be borne by Washington, not local taxpayers, since the federal government is responsible for the border.

Schiff and Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs) recently introduced a bill aimed at combating gang violence. And Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, has worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a Senate Appropriations Committee member, to steer money to California for wildfire prevention.

With Pelosi as speaker and Californians chairing five House committees -- more than any other state -- lawmakers are in a position to advance state interests.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, played a key role in writing a provision of the recently approved economic recovery bill that will steer more Medicaid money to California and other states where the unemployment rate has significantly increased. Pelosi and Waxman in 2007 also thwarted an effort to prohibit California and other states from taking tougher action than the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California Democrats and Republicans do hold their own weekly meetings, but the difficulty of bringing the delegation together also is a reflection of the highly partisan atmosphere in Washington.

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