Shortly after Rep. Xavier Becerra left the first meeting of the new budget-cutting “supercommittee” last Thursday, he walked into the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s regular lunch gathering in the Capitol basement and received a mixed reception.
“We extended our congratulations — and condolences,” said Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Tex.), the group’s chairman.
That response illustrates the promise and peril the assignment holds for all 12 members of the joint deficit-reduction panel, and particularly for Becerra (Calif.), a rising star in the Democratic ranks.
“We wouldn’t be here if we could have done this earlier,” he said in an interview last week. “So it’s not easy, it’s not fun and you’re not going to make a whole lot of friends.”
Becerra, the vice chairman of the House Democratic caucus, must balance that role with being a member of the supercommittee, the CHC and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The latter group is especially wary of the supercommittee’s mandate to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion, as liberals fear the panel will go too far in paring back domestic programs. They expect Becerra to serve as a defender of their priorities.
“He has a real sensitivity to the concerns of Democrats about the safety-net programs,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), adding that he “can’t imagine [Becerra] would vote for a proposal that many of us wouldn’t vote for, too.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the CPC’s co-chairman, agreed: “I don’t think Xavier will roll on things we feel passionate about.”
At 53, Becerra is part of a younger generation of Democrats that could angle to move up the leadership ladder in the coming years, along with Reps. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), Steve Israel (N.Y.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).
House Democrats’ ruling trio — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) — are all older than 70. Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) is 63.
Becerra has managed to rise steadily since he arrived in Congress two decades ago, ascending to a senior post on the Ways and Means Committee and becoming a key voice on tax and trade issues. Before Pelosi named him to the supercommittee, he served on President Obama’s National Commission for Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Becerra turned down an offer from Obama in December 2008 to be U.S. trade representative, and he was reportedly considered for commerce secretary as well.
He considers himself a policy wonk who is relatively unconcerned with career advancement. “I’m certainly not the best at politics,” he says.
Yet his ambition has occasionally gotten him in trouble with colleagues. His rejection of the trade representative post was unusually public. During the 2009 debate on health-care reform, Pelosi accused him at a closed-door meeting of throwing her “under the bus” to curry favor with liberals, according to a report in Politico.
Back home in Los Angeles, Becerra irritated some of the city’s Hispanic powerbrokers by running for mayor in 2001. He finished fifth in a crowded nonpartisan primary and was accused of siphoning off Latino votes from establishment-backed Antonio Villaraigosa, allowing James Hahn to win. (Villaraigosa ousted Hahn in 2005 and holds the mayoralty.)
Ten years later, Becerra makes no apologies for running. “I regret only not having done the political homework well enough,” he said, suggesting that he erred by not raising more money.
Becerra still thinks he could “do a good job” as mayor, although he also could decide to make his future in the upper ranks of House Democrats.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “I put no barriers, whether it’s running for mayor or opportunities elsewhere. If I enjoy it, I’m going to go for it.”
Whatever the deficit panel produces, it’s likely to anger one or more wings of the Democratic coalition. A vote for or against it could alienate lawmakers whose support Becerra might need down the line.
“I don’t care what the final package looks like — it’s going to be a tough vote,” Becerra acknowledged. “There are no easy votes here, and so it’s going to be something that . . . the pain will be obvious, and it’s more a matter of [whether] we can show we spread the pain, so we can spread the gain as well.”
The key to the supercommittee’s success, Becerra said, is for none of its members to bring preconditions into the room. Becerra won’t pledge to protect Medicare or Social Security benefits, for example.
He said he was eager for the challenge, comparing himself to “Mikey” from the old Life cereal commercials — the boy who would try anything without complaint.
As for his own future, Becerra said, “I don’t know if I can tell you it will help or hurt. I will tell you: I love these kinds of assignments.”