Politics & Government

Garamendi takes the oath and gets to work

WASHINGTON -- John Garamendi is wasting no time in making his move from Sacramento to Washington.

On Tuesday night, he won a special election in California's 10th Congressional District. On Wednesday, he took a Southwest Airlines flight to Washington. And on Thursday -- with his wife, six children and six of his nine grandchildren watching -- he was sworn in by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the newest member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"It was a thrill," said Garamendi, 64, who had served as the state's lieutenant governor since 2007. "Downright exciting."

And now, much to the pleasure of Pelosi, Garamendi's ready to vote for a trillion-dollar health care overhaul, the biggest issue to face Congress this year.

"It may be the biggest vote in the last 30 years in terms of domestic policy," Garamendi said. "This is crucial. This is crucial to every person in America."

Garamendi, who hosted a reception in his new digs in the Rayburn House Office Building after being sworn in, said he read part of the 20-pound, 1,990-page health care bill during his flight.

"I was going through the summaries," he said.

Garamendi said insurance reforms and a public option, which will allow the federal government to compete with private insurers, are the most important features of the health care bill. He said he's well-versed on health issues, noting that his first bill in the California Legislature in 1975 called for establishing a rural health program, adding that he served as chairman of a state health and welfare committee from 1978 to 1982.

Garamendi, a Democrat who defeated Republican attorney David Harmer, is replacing former Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who went to work for the Obama administration as an undersecretary in the State Department.

With Garamendi's arrival, Democrats now have 257 seats in the House, compared with 177 for Republicans, and there is one vacancy.

At her weekly news conference, Pelosi hailed Garamendi's arrival as "a great victory for our agenda." She said the biggest issue in the race was the Democratic health care plan, which was under attack, but that Garamendi still won big.

Garamendi, who has spent 35 years in public service, is no stranger to Washington. In the 1990s, he served for more than five years as President Bill Clinton's deputy secretary of the Interior Department. At that time, he and his wife lived in a house in northwest Washington. Garamendi said the couple will travel back and forth to California on weekends and are likely to get an apartment in Washington.

"We will have something," he said. "I'm not going to live in a fraternity."

Garamendi said he wants to focus on health care, climate change, jobs and transportation in his first year. He has yet to receive his committee assignments, but Garamendi said his top request is to land a seat on the House transportation panel.

"There are no other members from Northern California on that committee," he said. "And we've got big transportation issues."

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will appoint Garamendi's successor as lieutenant governor.

After resigning from the No. 2 position in state government, Garamendi joked that he has given up watching Schwarzenegger's health.

"No longer," he said.