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California gains clout in Congress

Simon is a writer in our Washington bureau.

Under President Bush, California Democrats often felt like Rodney Dangerfield.

But with Barack Obama headed to the White House -- giving their party control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in 14 years -- lawmakers from one of the nation’s bluest states are looking to gain more than just respect. They expect to wield more political clout as well.

Not only will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco preside over a bigger Democratic majority with a friendlier president, but Californians will chair four House committees, more than any other state.

Among them is Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), the newly elected chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who will play a key role in moving forward Obama’s initiatives to expand health insurance coverage and curb global warming.

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With California’s Barbara Boxer chairing the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the state’s lawmakers also will be at the forefront of shaping environmental legislation.

“Almost everywhere you look, someone from California is in a position of great influence,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. And Obama is expected to move quickly to carry out his pledge to reverse the Bush administration’s decision barring California from implementing its own global-warming law.

With so many Californians in key positions, the state should benefit financially too.

California Democrats plan to renew the drive to expand a children’s health insurance program, an expansion that Bush vetoed. If the effort is successful, the program could cover at least 600,000 more children in California alone. Democrats also are likely to push for a “green jobs” program aimed at bringing down the state’s high unemployment rate and expanding development of cleaner energy sources.

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Reps. Howard L. Berman of Valley Village, George Miller of Martinez and Bob Filner of Chula Vista will continue to chair the foreign affairs, education and labor, and veterans affairs committees, respectively. Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland will be head of the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus. And Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles was recently elected vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

The sheer size of the House delegation could benefit the state. “California has more Democrats in Congress than any other state has total members,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, chairwoman of the 34-member California House Democratic delegation.

“We have key people in the right places,” said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), herself chairwoman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. “When they talk about Democrats running the table, if you look up, the table is populated by Californians.”

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) added: “The size and seniority of the California congressional delegation, particularly under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi, will help ensure that Californians’ voices are heard on a range of important issues, such as maintaining high air quality standards, protecting our coasts from new offshore drilling and providing healthcare coverage to more low-income children.”

Waxman, in vaulting from the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to the Energy and Commerce Committee, gained influence over a broad range of issues of importance to the state, including the entertainment and high-tech industries.

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will continue to sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chair the subcommittee that writes the Interior Department’s spending bill.

Oddly enough, a Republican -- Jerry Lewis of Redlands, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee -- also could play a key role in bringing more money to the state by securing GOP support for spending measures.

Perhaps the biggest change for the state will come from the election of Obama, who carried California by the biggest margin of a presidential election since Franklin D. Roosevelt trounced Alf Landon in 1936.

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“We now have a president not hostile to the state of California,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).

California officials are heartened by Obama’s hiring of former aides to President Clinton, who heaped attention on the Golden State. Clinton traveled to California 56 times during his presidency (Bush has visited the state 22 times), lavished it with money and drew from it for appointments to his administration. California in return showered Clinton with buckets of campaign dollars and electoral votes.

The state has been no less golden for Obama, who raised $84 million from California -- one-fifth of his total individual contributions of more than $200.

And Obama -- who has selected Waxman’s former chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, to be his congressional liaison -- is expected to tend to the state, if only because its economy is important to the nation’s overall economic health.

Perhaps nowhere will California’s clout be stronger than in influencing environmental bills. Legislation that would add thousands of acres of wilderness in California is expected to be among the first measures to clear Congress next year.

But there will be limits to how far the Californians will be able to go to press their home state’s interests.

When Republicans controlled Congress, six Californians chaired House committees but were constrained in what they could deliver to California because of the budget deficit and new scrutiny over lawmakers’ practice of earmarking money for projects in their home districts.

“California might get a little more than it would otherwise because there are so many well-placed Californians in Congress, but it will only be on the margin,” predicted Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley.

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“It is worth remembering that when the Republicans controlled Congress, we had a Republican governor and many Californians in committee chairs, and yet we never closed the gap between the amount of money we send to the federal government and the money we get back.”

Still, Schiff said, “We won’t get everything we want, but we may end up getting more things than we would otherwise.”

The state, which receives from Washington only about one-tenth of the nearly $1 billion it spends on the jailing of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, should get more. Bush gave the cold shoulder to pleas by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other California officials -- Democrats and Republicans -- to reimburse border states for a problem they say is caused by the federal government’s failure to secure the border.

California’s ability to push through legislation also could be limited by the Senate, where lawmakers from the most populous state have no more votes than those from the smallest state.

Just ask Filner, who has pushed for legislation that would grant pension benefits to Filipino World War II veterans, a top priority for him and other lawmakers from California, where many of the aging veterans live. Legislation to provide the benefits passed the House and Senate but is set to die this year due to objections from a single senator, Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.).

Another check on California’s ability to flex its political muscle: Pelosi and her Californians, who tend to be more liberal than other Democrats, are likely to be cautious about forcing more conservative party members to cast politically tough votes.

For example, even with a larger Democratic majority and a Democratic president, Congress is unlikely to move to restore the recently expired ban on new offshore drilling, a hot topic in California since the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara. Instead, Congress is more likely to allow states to make drilling decisions

“We all get elected [to leadership posts] based on votes of people well beyond our state,” Becerra said.

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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