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State delegation holds little sway

California has by far the largest delegation in Congress, almost 10% of the membership. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, is a Californian, as are five of its committees’ chairs -- a collection of powerful positions unmatched by any state. The state’s two senators chair important committees, and one holds a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee.

And in terms of electoral politics, California has been among the most reliably Democratic major states, as well as by far the party’s most generous source of campaign cash.

So in California’s hour of need -- facing a financial crunch so severe that the state is poised to release convicted criminals and close classrooms early -- how can Washington seem to be turning an unsympathetic ear to its appeal for help?

Especially when almost all of Washington’s major power centers are controlled by Democrats?

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The Obama White House insists that its response to California’s fiscal crisis in no way resembles the tabloid headline when President Gerald R. Ford refused to bail out New York City in 1975: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” But the reaction to a second day of appeals for federal loan guarantees was less than enthusiastic -- from the White House or Capitol Hill.

And two major reasons for the tepid response emerged:

First, California’s representation in Congress may be huge, but it is famously fractious. On Thursday, the state’s 52 sitting House members (one seat is vacant) were once again split -- mostly along party lines.

Second, the state is joining a long line of supplicants -- including bankers, stockbrokers, insurance companies and Detroit automakers who had already tried the capital’s patience and stirred a backlash among voters.

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Plainly sensing it was in a bind, the Obama administration was almost plaintive in outlining the obstacles to offering loan guarantees. In addition to technical and legal problems, it said, how could it backstop one state and not all the others -- most of which are financially pinched as well?

At the same time, said White House senior advisor David Axelrod, “Obviously the situation in California is serious. There are crises of different proportions in different states, and California obviously is at the front of the list. We want to do everything we can to help, and we are.”

Meanwhile, in Congress, California Democrats were pushing for federal intervention while Republicans opposed it.

“As goes the economy in California, so goes the economy in the nation,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel).

“I think the time has come when California has to live within its means. We’re having some pretty tough financial times back here ourselves,” said Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico). “I’m not sure the federal government has the means to step in. . . . Somewhere along the line, California has to recognize that they’ve got to cut back on their spending.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who said he had tried to put together a delegation letter in support of the federal loan guarantee but got no support from his GOP colleagues, said, “We’re in competition with Wall Street for the same money, and Wall Street is not without its supporters.”

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) said that when he was in the House gym Wednesday, the day after the California election in which budget-related measures were defeated, Democratic congressman from other states -- he declined to say who -- told him bluntly, “We are not going to bail out California.”

For years, California has complained that it sends more money to Washington each year than it gets back.

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Nunes said he opposed a federal loan guarantee, saying that it would open the floodgates. “It’s a dangerous step,” he said.

In addition, a number of delegation Republicans dislike Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, although he’s a fellow Republican.

But the biggest problem may simply be the split. Historically, any group’s chances of getting federal assistance are greater if it is united.

When state Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) met recently with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, seeking his support for the loan guarantee, he suggested that the state’s prospects would be enhanced if its congressional delegation came together to support federal action.

That’s easier said than done. The partisan divide in the delegation is so deep that even something as seemingly innocuous as a recent measure to establish a commission to plan a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth failed to win unanimous support.

A handful of California Democrats voted against it.

And the delegation only recently got together for its first bipartisan meeting in two years, while some other state delegations meet monthly and often put aside differences to promote state interests, such as ethanol in Midwestern states.

California is also distinguished -- and divided -- by the ideological extremes within the delegation, which includes some of the most liberal and conservative politicians in Washington.

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“It’s always been hard to unite the California delegation,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “Its membership spans a wide array of philosophical positions, and their constituencies have diverse and conflicting interests.”

Despite all the infighting and obstacles, said Bruce Cain, head of the UC Washington Center, the state may get help.

“In the end, I think that California will get a guarantee, because for all our troubles, we are good for the money,” he said, but added that he thought federal help would not come easily.

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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