San Diego Union-Tribune

July 15, 2001

Time may be now for delegation to stand united

By DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- If ever there was a time for California's congressional
delegation to exercise strength in numbers, it may be now.

The state faces daunting challenges -- an energy crisis, looming water
shortages, a housing crunch -- when some California leaders say the White
House is ignoring the state's political will. As a result, many argue, it is more
important than ever that California's 52 House members and two senators
speak with one voice.

Yet partisanship has diluted the delegation's efforts on the energy crisis, while
this year's redrawing of congressional boundaries has strained relations
between the parties and among California Republicans. And when the
delegation has demonstrated unity on some crusades, it has not always
resulted in success.

"There is a fair amount of tension on both sides over redistricting," said a
Capitol Hill observer. "It makes everyone sort of gun-shy to work with each
other."

With 52 House seats, California potentially has the loudest congressional
voice of any state in the nation. And because of its exploding population,
California is positioned to add a seat. 

Striking unity in California Democrats and Republicans for anything has been
an elusive goal. When disharmony prevented the stopping of military base
closings in the state, the delegation started working more closely on issues
critical to the state's future.

Today, delegation unity is a mixed bag. For instance, although congressional
members agreed this year that California should not be forced to use ethanol
in its gasoline, they differed strongly about whether to cap wholesale
electricity prices.

"Eight years ago, there was no common ground, and nobody looked for it,"
said Jim Specht, a spokesman for the former chairman of California's
Republican delegation, Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands. "Four years ago,
everybody was looking for common ground. Within the last few years, there's been some frustration (because) on some issues you just can't find common ground.

"But there's been a fair amount of maturing in the delegation. If they were
fighting over one issue in 1992, then they weren't going to come together on
anything. Nowadays, they can yell and scream about one thing and still figure
out a way to get everybody together on other issues."

Pam Barry, who works for the state's Democratic delegation, said unity has
won the state more money to imprison undocumented immigrant felons than it
might otherwise have gotten, and unity has helped beat back attempts by the
Federal Emergency Management Agency to require earthquake insurance for
public buildings.

But there was significant discord among California representatives on the most important issue of the day -- how to solve the state's energy crisis. Democrats argued for temporary caps on electricity prices, but most Republicans said free market forces would solve high energy costs and rolling blackouts.

Tension is also evident between Republicans and Democrats over the
redrawing of legislative boundaries -- the once-a-decade task that threatens
to leave some congressional Republicans in districts that will be hard for them
to win again.

California Republicans cannot agree among themselves if they should work
with Democrats to minimize conflicts over redistricting or "beat up the
Democrats as much as they can and insist that whatever (redistricting) plan
they come up with is not a good plan," said one source involved in talks.

The conflict eventually persuaded Lewis to step aside as chairman of the
California Republican delegation -- a position he had held for six years.

Though a senior GOP staffer agreed there is tension among Democrats and
Republicans, he said the mood is far better than in the early '80s when
redistricting left "such poison in the delegation that Democrats and
Republicans never even met." Now, he said, the two camps try to move
beyond their discomfort to work with each other.

David Dreier, the Covina congressman leading the GOP delegation, is more
conservative than Lewis. It is unclear whether he will work as well with
California Democrats as his predecessor.

"Perhaps the biggest problem you have in getting the California delegation
together is getting the conservatives to go along," said one person who works
closely with California House members.

Even when Republicans and Democrats unite, it is never certain that numbers
will get them what they want.

Though the delegation urged President Bush to waive a requirement that
refiners add corn-based ethanol to much of California's gasoline, Bush refused to do so. Many believe his decision was based on his desire to please Midwestern corn farmers.

"(California members are) using their size and muscle on a selective basis,"
said Tim Ransdell, director of the California Public Policy Institute. "California wins probably its fair share of these battles, but you can't win them all."

Nonetheless, some believe California's unity on the ethanol issue was
effective: After California Republicans complained that Bush could cost them
votes should his ethanol decision lead to higher gas prices, the White House
began considering a compromise, such as lowering the percentage of additive
required in gasoline.