WASHINGTON — California's high-speed rail plan is fast turning into a partisan affair on Capitol Hill, further complicating its prospects.
The accelerating partisanship came into view again Thursday, when 19 House lawmakers revived a high-speed rail caucus. Tellingly, every caucus member is a Democrat.
"It's become political, that's what it tells me," acknowledged caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. "It's been bipartisan before."
Formally called the Congressional Caucus on California High-Speed Rail, the House group is designed to demonstrate clout and concentrate legislative energies. It's one of three rail-oriented congressional causes this year, but the only one specifically targeting California.
Another rail caucus initiated this week, co-chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, will cover both high-speed and general passenger rail issues.
Dozens of other caucuses likewise have rallied at the start of the 112th Congress around topics ranging from arthritis and cystic fibrosis to bikes and winemaking. Many pride themselves on being explicitly bipartisan.
Last year's version of the California high-speed rail caucus, for instance, included Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray of Solana Beach as an officer. This year, Bilbray opted out.
Bilbray didn't return a call seeking comment Thursday.
In California, Costa noted, high-speed rail continues to command support from some Republican elected officials, including Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
Still, other Republicans have been jumping off-board the expensive public works project now closely identified as an Obama administration priority. Republicans unanimously opposed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed in 2009, which has funded most of the federal rail grants.
Republicans now control the House, empowering positions that include a recent bid to slash Obama's high-speed rail funding. Even Republicans who previously have been sympathetic, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica of Florida, must be attuned to concerns of tea party conservatives.
"It makes it more difficult, certainly," said Costa, who is again serving as the high-speed rail caucus co-chair this year.
Some Sacramento-area lawmakers have joined, including Rep. John Garamendi, D-Elk Grove. But one freshman San Joaquin Valley lawmaker approached about joining the caucus, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, turned down the invitation.
Others have modified their overall position on the project, or suggested it's the Democrats who've turned high-speed rail into high-impact politics.
Last year, for instance, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, denounced the Obama administration for using rail funding to "provide last-minute re-election assistance to struggling Democrats" including Costa. The administration announced the funding, including nearly $1 billion for California, eight days before the election.
In a 2007 letter, Nunes and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, joined other House members in voicing support for California's high-speed rail program.
Now, McCarthy and Nunes are among the most vocal skeptics. The two GOP colleagues back long-shot legislation that would steer California's share of federal high-speed rail funding into highway improvements along State Route 99. Both question the cost and viability of the rail plan's initial route, a 123-mile line connecting Bakersfield to rural Madera County.
"In today's world, is that the best place to put the money? The answer is no," McCarthy told reporters recently. "I don't think it's a smart investment."
The Republican distancing from high-speed rail isn't just happening in California, as three GOP governors have rejected the Obama administration's offer of federal rail funds.
Other states and regions, including the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Northeast and California, have until April 4 to compete for a share of the $2.4 billion rejected by Florida.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011