WASHINGTON — It's shaping up as a tough year for San Joaquin Valley Democratic lawmakers.
Their once-booming Blue Dog caucus has shrunk. They are separating themselves from party leader Nancy Pelosi, some more explicitly than others. Their personal relations with Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, are frayed, complicating regional teamwork.
On Wednesday, some of these tensions will strain the room where Pelosi will seek election to serve next year as House minority leader. One Valley Democrat, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, says he will vote against the San Franciscan who Republicans love to revile.
"There's a lot of concern about keeping the same leadership," Costa said, stressing his preference to "make compromises" rather than engage in constant partisan battle.
Costa's close ally on many issues, Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Merced, tellingly declined to say how he will vote in the secret ballot Wednesday.
"I'm going to keep my own counsel," Cardoza said.
Just four years ago, Cardoza took pride in nominating Pelosi as House speaker, as well the more moderate Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland as House majority leader. Now, Cardoza says, he has issues with the unabashedly liberal Pelosi even though he declines to say whether he will vote for or against her Wednesday.
"I'm going to make those issues known to her," Cardoza said.
Some members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition will be casting what amounts to a protest vote Wednesday for North Carolina Democrat Heath Shuler. Others, including Costa, have indicated a preference for the business-friendly Hoyer as party leader. Pelosi, though, remains the presumptive favorite while retaining Hoyer as her deputy.
The separation from Pelosi, compounded by some congressional calculations, can be seen in Cardoza's decision to leave the House Rules Committee. The panel is powerful, because it sets rules for debating and amending legislation, but on votes its members are beholden to the party leaders who appoint them.
Cardoza has characterized his four years on the committee as "having a seat at the table" where key decisions are made. Starting next year, though, committee Democrats will be outnumbered nine to four.
"I don't see the Rules Committee as an effective place for a member of the minority," Cardoza said, noting that minority members often end up becoming partisan bomb-throwers.
It's unclear whether Cardoza could have won one of the minority party's four slots, as he is fifth in seniority on the Rules Committee. By leaving the leadership panel, he can rejoin the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He could also gain more freedom of political movement, once he's off the leadership-controlled panel.
Both he and Costa had to fight with extra tenacity this year to win elections against Republican challengers, who drew upon anti-Pelosi sentiment.
Costa had advanced to a 1,107-vote lead over Republican challenger Andy Vidak as of Monday. Though Cardoza won more handily, by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin over Republican Michael Berryhill, he also was boosted by hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside advertising from the National Association of Realtors.
The Republican wave that they survived leaves the Valley Democrats in a minority among the minority, self-styled moderates in a party led by liberals.
The Blue Dog caucus, a home for moderate and conservative Democrats, will be much smaller than this year's 58-member organization. Mass defeats and retirements whittled the caucus to only about two dozen for the 112th Congress next year.
Costa asserted the caucus will actually be more potent and nimble, now that it's been reduced to a solid core. Cardoza said the role of moderates remains to be seen.
"It depends on how unified the Republican caucus is, whether they're going to have to come get Democratic votes," Cardoza said.
Nunes, though, dismisses the Blue Dogs as a "cover group" for liberals. It's the kind of sharp-tongued characterization that captures the poor working relationship between Nunes on the one hand and Costa and Cardoza on the other. On issues like California high-speed rail, for instance, they do not work together.
"Their voting is really extremely liberal," Nunes said. "I like them personally, but they're the ones that voted the wrong way; their votes are extreme left-wing."
This is pointed talk in the San Joaquin Valley, particularly among politically attuned farmers and business leaders.
"Loyalty means nothing to him," Costa said. "He threw Dennis (Cardoza) and I under the bus."
Cardoza added that "obviously my relationship with Mr. Nunes has changed dramatically," and he denounced the Republican's political observations as "partisan, and very inflammatory, and not helpful."
Entering the minority means Cardoza will be losing his House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee chairmanship, a position that enabled him to steer hundreds of millions of dollars to specialty crops in the 2008 farm bill. Costa will lose his chairmanship of a House energy and mineral resources committee.
Nunes is still figuring out his committee positions, while Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy will increasingly be the man to see as House majority whip.
"It's going to be an interesting two years," Cardoza said.