WASHINGTON — In a long-shot bid to ease California's fiscal troubles, Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Washington on Wednesday, hoping to shake loose $7 billion from Congress to help plug more than a third of the state's deficit.
Schwarzenegger, accompanied by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, met privately with Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, pressing the case that the federal government is shortchanging Californians.
It was anything but a show of unity. At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Bass said the Republican governor had erred earlier this month by taking a combative tone in his dealings with members of Congress.
"Different from the governor, we are here to work in collaboration and partnership with our congressional delegation," Bass said. "We have differed with the tone that the governor set. I will tell you, though, today his tone has been a little better."
The governor was unapologetic.
"California is getting 78 cents back for every dollar it sends to Washington and the governor will not apologize for aggressively fighting for the state's fair share," said Aaron McLear, the governor's press secretary. "If some of our leaders are satisfied with California subsidizing other states while we make devastating cuts to our own programs then they will have to explain that to their constituents."
Schwarzenegger said the state needs the money from Washington to avoid more painful budget cuts.
"We are owed this money, and so we all work together, the whole team, the legislative leaders and myself. ... We need that money now more than ever," the governor told reporters.
Democrats Bass, of Los Angeles, and Steinberg, of Sacramento, argue that California should receive special help because the national economy depends on the Golden State's economic recovery. They said one way the federal government could help would be to give the state more flexibility in how it spends its stimulus money.
Bass said that both Boxer and Feinstein "were taken aback by the governor's combative tone" two weeks ago when he blamed the state's financial woes partly on the federal government. Bass said the governor's tone had not been constructive.
"I would agree with the speaker," Feinstein said after emerging from a meeting with the governor. "But look, my loyalty is to California. I'm born there, raised there, spent all my life there. I love the state. I hate to see the economic distress that's going on, and I want to help. So it's not a problem."
Feinstein said she had "a good meeting" with Schwarzenegger.
"Obviously, we want to help the state," she said. "We'll do the best we can. It's very difficult. All I can say is we'll do the very best we can."
Earlier this month, Feinstein said, "it sounds like the governor is looking for someone else to blame for California's budget." And she added: "California's budget crisis was created in Sacramento, not Washington."
Steinberg said the senators and the state's congressional delegation are trying their best to help California balance its budget.
"We came to D.C. not to point any fingers, but simply to say that our constituents are the same, whether you're a state legislator or a member of Congress," he said. "We are all in this together."
But many Democrats and Republicans alike are skeptical of any plan that would favor a single state, particularly while the federal government struggles with big-time money woes of its own.
"Budget deficits that are made in California need to stay in California, and that goes for the other 49 states as well," said Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove.
Draw Hammill, a spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, noted that "tens of billions of dollars have gone to California" under the federal stimulus passed last year and that more will be coming as the remaining funds are spent. Nearly half of the money has not yet been awarded, he said.
"That being said, the federal government is not responsible for the state of California's budget, and we look forward to hearing a sustainable plan for the state to get its house in order," Hammill said.
The Californians' visit to Capitol Hill came on the same day that members of Congress were preoccupied with analyzing Tuesday's election results in Massachusetts, where voters chose a conservative Republican state senator to fill the Senate seat caused by the vacancy of liberal lion Edward Kennedy.
"When we planned the trip, we didn't quite anticipate that the Capitol would be roiled by the election results in Massachusetts," Steinberg said. But he said that members of the California delegation "are fully and absolutely engaged in trying to work with us."
Schwarzenegger said the Massachusetts results showed that there's no safe seat in politics this year.
"What it means is that the pendulum has swung and I think it could be a good year for Republicans," he said.
But he added: "We are here for one reason, and not to analyze elections. We are here to fight for California. ... I'm very, very happy that we're all together here and that we're all in sync."
Schwarzenegger will wrap up his meetings Thursday. He's scheduled to meet with Pelosi privately and then with the state's entire delegation.