WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley lawmakers have begun open warfare, as water and health care passions have shattered the region's traditional bipartisan truce.
Democrats are demanding that Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, apologize for his vehement rhetoric. Nunes, in turn, is holding his ground and says the Democrats he calls his friends deserve defeat in November.
Percolating for many months, the regional conflict turned scalding hot during the House of Representatives' debate on health care legislation.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, says it will be "very difficult" to collaborate again with Nunes unless the Republican repudiates allegations that Cardoza voted for health care legislation in return for an Interior Department water delivery decision.
"I am deeply, personally disappointed in Mr. Nunes and his comments," Cardoza said in an interview. "I think he should apologize."
Driving the point home, Cardoza used the Portuguese denunciation "Ele nï¿½o tem vergonha" in discussing his fellow member of the House Portuguese Caucus. The phrase roughly translates as "he has no shame," and it carries a big cultural wallop.
But Nunes, in turn, sternly denounces both Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
"They are part of this totalitarian regime in Washington," Nunes said, adding that "we know their votes are for sale, but we didn't know for how much."
Nunes cited Costa's and Cardoza's support for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Nunes said Pelosi and her lieutenant, Rep. George Miller, D-Concord, want to cut off Valley irrigation water because "they are radical environmental crazies," and he explicitly likened the House leaders' water policies to those of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the current Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe.
Saddam's forces killed between 30,000 and 60,000 of the so-called Marsh Arabs in the early 1990s, following an uprising encouraged by the first Bush administration after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Saddam's campaign included destroying marshlands. Mugabe's corrupt security forces practice torture and "politically motivated, arbitrary and unlawful killings," according to the State Department's annual human rights report. Some activists allege Mugabe's repressive tactics include cutting off water supplies to dissident cities.
Nunes further says House Democrats employ "staff thugs," who watch over lawmakers during votes.
"They have chosen to go down this road, into this left-wing gutter," Nunes said of Costa and Cardoza.
In this fight, legislation and congressional effectiveness are becoming collateral damage. Nunes repeatedly has been blocked from offering California water amendments, which has fueled his frustration. In turn, he sharpens his own weapons.
On Wednesday, a House subcommittee was scheduled to approve Costa's legislation offering federal funds for California water projects during droughts. Farmers support it.
Costa, though, withdrew his bill in the face of amendments prepared by Nunes and other Republicans. Viewed politically, the amendments waiving the Endangered Species Act and turning on California irrigation pumps would box Costa into an election-year corner. Voting for them would have rendered the bill unpalatable to other Democrats. Voting against them would have seemed anti-farmer.
Costa said other reasons contributed to the bill's postponement. He added, though, that "baseless and extreme rhetoric" has undercut Nunes' credibility.
"I think that, beginning last summer, his antics have thrown the tradition of bipartisanship out the window, and that saddens me," Costa said.
Though rivalries have always existed, including within the same party, Valley lawmakers have long preferred a collaborative spirit. Cardoza and his predecessor, Gary Condit, for instance, declined to campaign against their then-Republican colleague, Richard Pombo of Tracy.
"The understanding we had was that we would never take on our Valley people," recalled Tony Coelho, the former Dos Palos-area Democratic congressman who worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years. "We had to work together to solve our problems."
Now, there are more fissures that began opening last year amid heated disagreements over San Joaquin River restoration plans.
Recently, for instance, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein authored an amendment to increase irrigation deliveries to Valley farms. Feinstein distributed the legislative language to other congressional offices.
Nunes, however, was deliberately excluded, and even other Valley offices would not share the sensitive documents with him.
"Devin has gone to such an extreme that I don't know how he's going to be effective," said Coelho, the House majority whip during the late 1980s. "He is making himself irrelevant."
Nathan Monroe, a University of California at Merced political scientist, predicted that "through the November election" water disputes will "continue to cause friction." Longer term, though, he suggested political self-interest could reunite feuding members.
"When it benefits these congressmen, their constituents and their re-election chances to work again on Valley issues, I expect they'll do it without hesitation," Monroe said.