WASHINGTON — Rep. Devin Nunes was a low-profile Republican from California's Central Valley, perhaps best known for his battles with environmentalists over water, including once bringing a bowl of fish to a Capitol Hill hearing to argue that their interests were being elevated over those of farmers.
And then he uttered four words, describing colleagues who were willing to let the federal government shut down over Obamacare as "lemmings with suicide vests.''
That put the six-term legislator in the very small circle of Republicans willing to speak out against his party's strategy.
He said the "lemming caucus" that sought to defund the 2010 healthcare law as a condition for keeping the government open has misled his constituents into believing — falsely, he says — that their strategy could succeed. He said that he, too, hates Obamacare but sees no prospect of its repeal with its biggest fan in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate.
"You guys ever watch 'Sixteen Candles'? ... That's going to be us tomorrow," Nunes recently told reporters, suggesting — tongue in cheek, he later said — that Republicans would end up like a character in the 1984 movie, waking up on a lawn after crashing the car.
The 40-year-old farmer says he believes the shutdown is hurting his party by dominating the headlines when Republicans could otherwise be highlighting problems with the rollout of the healthcare law. He's also taken on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a darling of the tea party. "He's the one that got us into this mess," Nunes says.
Despite his vocal criticism, Nunes has voted with his party every step of the way, seeing it as important to stand with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other fellow Republicans. "You try to make your case, and if you lose, you have to go with your team," he said in an interview outside the House chamber.
But he's also drawn flak, judging by comments on his Facebook page. "Mr. Nunes — I applaud you for calling out your Republican colleagues and instead of just following the party line, calling it like you see it. Um, and then you voted for the bill? Wow — what a courageous stand you took," one person wrote.
Nunes has no regrets. "I felt that I had to be truthful with my constituency and truthful with my Republican conference and try to keep them from going off into this abyss," he said.
Nunes is in the spotlight at a time when he and other California Republicans have worked to increase their influence in the GOP-controlled House, even though they make up only 15 members of their deep-blue state's 53-member House delegation — their lowest share since 1936.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is majority whip, the House's third-ranking Republican, and Darrell Issa of Vista, Howard "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita and Ed Royce of Fullerton chair House committees.
Nunes has been mentioned as a possible, albeit a seeming long-shot, candidate for chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee if Republicans hold on to their House majority in next year's election.
He is fifth in seniority on the panel, whose leader, Dave Camp of Michigan, must step down because of Republican-imposed term limits for chairmen. Nunes currently chairs the trade subcommittee but, perhaps more important, has raised gobs of cash to help elect fellow Republicans, including contributing $565,000 from his campaign committee to the House GOP's campaign arm in the last election cycle. Nunes declined to talk about a possible bid for the gavel. "That's far off," he said.
The grandson of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and father of three daughters, Nunes was managing his family's Tulare farm when he began his political career at age 23, winning election to the College of the Sequoias board. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him to serve as California director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development section. He was reelected to the House last year with 62% of the vote.
He has worked with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin in developing a budget blueprint that recommended major changes to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, including allowing younger workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes to personal retirement accounts. He also has opposed California's high-speed rail project.
He's made headlines before, suggesting in 2009 that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican, should step down for his "failure to respond to the ongoing California water crisis."
Nunes, whose district is about 45% Latino, has broken with the GOP ranks on some immigration matters. In 2005, he voted against a GOP bill that would have cracked down on illegal immigration but omitted a guest-worker program important to Central Valley farmers. He was recently one of six House Republicans who opposed an effort to cut off funding for an Obama administration program that halted the deportation of many young immigrants who are in high school or college or have served in the military.
Among his legislative accomplishment is a 2008 bill signed into law by Bush ensuring that "sole survivors" — members of the military who lose all their siblings in war — would continue to receive veterans benefits if they left the service early. The measure grew out of problems suffered by one of Nunes' constituents, who was in the Army and was denied benefits after leaving the service when his two brothers were killed in the Iraq war.
His stand on the government shutdown is likely to be more controversial.
Nunes would not identify by name the members he considers to be in the lemming caucus, but he said they are about two dozen House Republicans who say "no on everything."
Rep. John Campbell of Irvine shrugged off Nunes' comment but defended the Republican strategy, saying the fight isn't only about derailing Obamacare.
"It's about the fact that we Republicans control one house of this government," he said. While House Republicans don't expect to get everything they want, "it also doesn't mean that we get nothing."
Asked about Nunes' criticism, Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said that "Americans aren't interested in politicians bickering among one another — they want Congress to fix the problem."
Nunes is not sure how it will all end.
"Everybody on both sides is dug in," he said. "It's going to be tough to get out of this."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times