WASHINGTON — Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., tries to walk a fine line in a hyper-partisan world.
Certainly, he’s a Republican loyalist. He’s currently seeking a GOP leadership position in the House of Representatives. He raises money for his conservative colleagues. In his first year, he almost always voted the Republican Party line.
At the same time, as he seeks re-election in a California district where voter registration is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, Denham can display some bipartisan stripes. With Democratic help, he’s gotten several bills through the House and one signed by the president.
He helped establish a bipartisan caucus on veterans employment issues. By all accounts, he gets along comfortably with his colleagues.
“I’m somebody who wants to get things done,” Denham said, “and the only way to get things done is to work across party lines.”
Taken together, the 45-year-old House freshman’s record for bipartisanship is a mixed one. He has civil personal relationships with San Joaquin Valley Democrats. This counts for something, as some other Valley lawmakers fight frequently. He’s collaborated on legislation and on joint congressional letters.
Still, Denham voted with a majority of his fellow Republicans 97 percent of the time in 2011. And among the very Democrats with whom Denham claims a solid working relationship, there’s a hankering for more sustained and deeply rooted collaboration that goes beyond the pleasantries.
“We have nice conversations on the House floor. He’s made an effort,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., “but frankly, we could do far better.”
Another Democratic House veteran, former San Joaquin Valley congressman Dennis Cardoza, said he would give Denham “an incomplete, not a failure,” for bipartisanship. Cardoza said that while Denham was willing to ask for Democratic help, he seemed hesitant to join efforts that Democrats initiated.
“We’ve had a positive working relationship,” Cardoza said. “The only downside that I had was there were a number of times I reached out to him to reciprocate my support for him, and I can’t recall when he did that.”
Denham has co-sponsored 156 bills and resolutions this Congress. Twenty-five of these, or 16 percent, were authored by Democrats. By contrast, 48 percent of the bills that Costa has co-sponsored were authored by Republicans, House records show.
Sometimes, these kinds of bipartisan co-sponsorships can pay off.
In December, for instance, Denham joined Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., as co-sponsor of a bill to turn the Pinnacles National Monument into the Pinnacles National Park. That same day, Farr signed on as sole Democratic co-sponsor of a Denham bill to acquire 18 acres for Yosemite National Park in Mariposa County. Each lawmaker was in a position to help the other.
“Sam Farr and I don’t agree a majority of the time,” Denham said, “but where we are able to work together, we will.”
On the House floor, Denham noted, he will frequently sit with Democrats or chat with them between votes. Such informal interactions, like chances to sit next to each other on cross-country flights, can help lubricate legislative relationships.
With Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, a fellow military veteran with whom he had traveled to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Denham succeeded in passing a bill into law that makes it easier for veterans to use their military training in getting civilian jobs. The collaboration prompted Walz to praise Denham for “that type of comradery, that type of can-do spirit and that type of willingness to compromise to get things done.”
Denham sometimes votes with the Democrats, too. On Sept. 20, for instance, he was one of only five House Republicans to side with most Democrats in defeating a GOP bill that would have eliminated a program that distributes 55,000 immigrant visas by lottery.
The immigration visa vote, though, was a bit of an anomaly. Lockstep voting is common these days, among members of both parties
An annual CQ Weekly tally that found Denham voted with a majority of his fellow Republicans 97 percent of the time in 2011 also showed Denham was a more predictable GOP vote than his colleagues. The average House Republican voted with a majority of other GOP lawmakers 91 percent of the time that year, the most recent for which comparable figures are available.
This strict partisanship is far higher than it used to be. Twenty years ago, in 1992, the average House Republican voted with a majority of fellow Republicans only 79 percent of the time. Perhaps reflecting the Valley’s center-right ideological tilt, moreover, Cardoza and Costa both voted with Republicans more than Denham votes with Democrats.
In response, Denham noted he has voted differently from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor 92 times since taking office.
If he beats Democratic candidate Jose Hernandez for the 10th Congressional District seat in November, Denham will be seeking election as House Republican conference secretary, one of the first rungs on the House leadership ladder. Party loyalty and, at times, partisan zeal can become important considerations among those seeking leadership positions.
Denham, though, insists he can keep everything in balance.
“The Valley needs representatives in the leadership,” Denham said, adding that “I’m never going to be threatened for working with Democrats.”
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