Upcoming Congress holds promise, hurdles for Valley lawmakers

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley lawmakers are maneuvering amid the fallout from the November election. They're adapting their 2009 agendas to fit a new president, a reconfigured Congress and a chaotic economy. They face a complicated political environment filled with high hurdles, fresh openings and no guarantees of success.

"Nothing happens around here without obstacles," noted Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.

Valley conservatives, including Radanovich, hope once more to revise the Endangered Species Act on behalf of farmers and ranchers. This a long shot, as similar efforts have collapsed since 1995. All Valley lawmakers want to see an official Armenian genocide commemoration. That has a chance, given President-elect Barack Obama's stated support. And every lawmaker has at least one pet project they want to pursue.

"With the new president-elect, it's going to create an opportunity for federal support for high-speed rail," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said when asked for his new year's agenda.

High-speed rail illustrates how the post-election shakeout hits on Capitol Hill and at home. It's a longstanding love for Costa, buttressed by California voters' recent approval of a $10 billion bond measure for what's ultimately foreseen as an 800-mile, $45 billion project.

Congress, with more Democrats coming on board and with Obama's blessing, will now craft an ambitious economic stimulus package. Costa wants high-speed rail funding included, and Obama sounds like he could be sympathetic.

"Why aren't we building high speed rail in America ... putting people back to work, saving on energy?" Obama said, encouragingly, while campaigning in Michigan in September. "Why aren't we doing that?"

The economic stimulus bill appears likely to total roughly $500 billion, providing lawmakers myriad opportunities to shovel in other local projects as well. It will face conservative opposition -- Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, is already warning against a bill "that's just a grab bag" -- but it also enjoys considerable legislative momentum.

The economic stimulus bill, moreover, will be only one mark in the new 111th Congress.

Within a few weeks of Congress returning on Jan. 3, for instance, lawmakers anticipate the Senate will approve a massive public lands bill that includes legislation to restore the San Joaquin River.

The bill will fund channel improvements and other work needed to get water flowing below Friant Dam next year, with salmon being reintroduced by 2013. Even opponents of the ambitious river restoration bill now concede it's likely to pass.

"That's going to be done shortly, unless something happens between now and January," Nunes predicted unhappily.

Another big San Joaquin Valley water push is expected in January, when Costa said he and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein will introduce a bill targeting irrigation drainage on the Valley's west side.

This complicated and inevitably controversial bill would turn the San Luis Reservoir over to the Westlands Water District and forgive the district's multimillion-dollar debt to U.S. taxpayers. In exchange, the water district would assume the expensive responsibility of cleaning up the drainage. A bill like this could take a very long time to complete.

In still other cases, national priorities will be felt locally. Nunes, for instance, anticipates a lot of work on health care, as a member of the powerful House committee that oversees much of the industry.

Personnel shifts will shape agendas, though not necessarily in predictable ways.

Obama never campaigned in the Valley, and neither Costa nor Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, endorsed him early when it might have incited the most reciprocal loyalty. On the other hand, the Valley can claim some hooks into Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel formerly served as political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee under Merced County native Tony Coelho. That was 22 years ago, so the thread may be slight, but Valley representatives could still tug on it.

"He really learned politics in Tony's shop," Cardoza noted. "He understands the Valley."

The new White House liaison to Congress, Phil Schiliro, has a more immediate California connection, through several decades of working for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles. Cardoza was only half joking when he said he knows at least the White House will now be returning phone calls.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein expects to become the new chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, but none of the Valley's House members anticipate making committee changes or gaining new chairmanships in the new Congress.

"I don't think my role is going to change all that much," Cardoza said, though "the speaker (of the House) has indicated there are some projects she would like me to pursue."

Agendas, moreover, will be shaped by what others do. In a Capitol Hill coup, Los Angeles Democrat Henry Waxman gained chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman is an aggressive regulator of industry.

"It signifies a turn to the left on issues of global warming and energy," Radanovich predicted.