Updated, April 2, 1:15 p.m. | In 2001, just shy of a decade in the House, Rep. Xavier Becerra suggested he was more of a policy wonk than a power broker.
“I understand the politics," he told a Los Angeles Times reporter. "I’m not the best at playing the game.”
Thirteen years later, whether he was being self-effacing or somewhat disingenuous is debatable. But one thing's become clear in the intervening decade: As a political operator, Becerra's come into his own.
Back then, the California Democrat was a perpetually “rising star” among the party rank and file, trying to live down a few political gaffes while pursuing a doomed bid for mayor of Los Angeles, a loss he says he still regrets.
Now, the 56-year-old lawmaker is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and the highest-ranking Latino on Capitol Hill.
“I think I’ve been a very good student of all aspects of being in Congress,” Becerra said recently during one of two separate interviews with CQ Roll Call. “I think I’m always working hard to get an ‘A.’ ”
A former lawyer and Stanford graduate who’s meticulous about starting meetings on time and carries a red pen in his suit pocket — “red stands out over black ink, so if I need any corrections, it’s easier for folks to see” — it’s not surprising Becerra would quantify his performance in such metrics.
“He’s very deliberate in terms of his approach to leadership,” said his current caucus vice chairman, Joseph Crowley of New York. “I think he works at it.”
But Becerra may not know his final grade for another few years. With at least one of the three most senior party leaders likely to retire in the not-so-distant future, he will inevitably be one of several younger, ambitious lawmakers jockeying to fill the empty slot. He has ascended to leadership over the years thanks in part to an assist from fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader who could decide to leave Congress in a coming term.
When that happens, it will be up to his House colleagues to decide how Becerra stacks up against Crowley, Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, to name a few also eyeing more party power in the next generation of the caucus.
A deciding factor for his peers could be how he navigates the immigration debate for the duration of the 113th Congress. On this and a whole host of other issues, Becerra has had a history of struggling to balance loyalty to the party's leadership with the demands of representing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and serving his constituents in Los Angeles.
Take his lobbying of fellow progressives in support of the public option during the health care debate in late 2009. Democrats had already ceded to Republicans on the matter, and then-Speaker Pelosi chafed at then-Caucus Vice Chairman Becerra’s whisper campaign.
“I understand I have tire tracks on my back from Xavier throwing me under the bus,” she reportedly told members.
Still, he has his defenders.
“People would expect him to be more on the side of every issue in our caucus,” Arizona Democrat Raúl M. Grijalva, a CHC member and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman, observed. “But he can’t.”
“When you’re in leadership, you’re in a different position than a rank-and-file member trying to push something, because you’re having to convince your colleagues to go,” Becerra told CQ Roll Call. “I’ve learned to be pragmatic, but I don’t sacrifice my principles, my values.”
After admitting to defeat on the public option, Becerra swallowed the bitter pill and helped shore up liberal support for the Affordable Care Act, allowing that, “to get it done, some things would be sacrificed.”
Not everyone has been so charitable in chalking up Becerra’s political missteps to a pure desire to do good by every faction of his base. Ultimately, critics said, Becerra is like any politician: He’s looking out for himself and his own interests, and the caucus chairman is as self-serving as they come.
Those critics, speaking on condition of anonymity to CQ Roll Call, accused Becerra of playing a role in the demise of the House’s bipartisan working group to produce a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill. They said Becerra would insist that leadership weigh in on any provision he didn’t personally support, and was willing to slow down the process in order to get his way.
A congressional aide said that whenever Becerra “can’t find support in a big room, he goes and finds a smaller room.”
Becerra rejected those claims.
“It was a given that we were communicating with our leadership, on both sides,” Becerra said of the "gang of eight." "I think it was helpful for us on the Democratic side to be able to get buy-in for what only four Democrats were producing so we would end up getting vast support from our Democratic colleagues.
“What I tried to do is bring my values to the negotiating table, but bring the pragmatism that I had as a member of Democratic leadership to speak and act on behalf of 200 Democrats,” he continued. “I didn’t bail out and say, ‘I didn’t get my way,’ I stayed in until the very end. … I couldn’t do it just for myself.”
Becerra had the luxury of doing it for himself in his early years on Capitol Hill, back when he was a freshman in 1993. That year, he successfully persuaded the legendarily irascible Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., to secure a better deal for disabled immigrants in a short-term unemployment insurance extension.
Emboldened, Becerra went on to stand up at a caucus meeting to thank the elder statesman for being amenable to the change — then launched into a lecture on Congress’s general neglect of the immigrant community.
Rostenkowski, flustered and embarrassed, reneged on the agreement, and had he not been ousted from the House amid corruption charges a year later, Becerra may never have made it onto the Ways and Means Committee, at the time his highest stated aspiration.
“I didn’t know who I was taking on!” Becerra recalled with a laugh.
Was that the last time he spoke truth to power? Becerra says no.
“I have been chastised by a president, I have antagonized and angered presidents, and I have taken on my own leadership,” he said, even though in the past few months Becerra has held back in his critiques of Barack Obama, leaving it to other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to call the president the “deporter in chief.”
But that earlier incident clarified something essential for Becerra: “Had I been in leadership in 1993, Dan Rostenkowski would not have slipped the bill.”
In short, he saw the leadership table as a place where he could most effectively advance his agenda, even if it meant adjusting his expectations.
Pelosi appointed him assistant to the speaker in 2006, and Democrats elected him to his first of two consecutive terms as caucus vice chairman in 2008. In the waning days of the House Democratic majority in 2010, the chamber passed the DREAM Act, which fell a handful of votes shy of passage in the Democratic Senate. These days, it's a rare Democratic press conference on immigration where Becerra isn’t also present, pleading, “Speaker Boehner, just give us a vote.”
When asked whether he should be given credit for the Democrats’ embrace of the issue of immigration over the past few years, Becerra was unequivocal in his reply: “No doubt. No doubt. No doubt.”
Today, Becerra said that if he plays the game well — or rather, if he excels at his current job of running the Democratic Caucus — “There will be lots of things ahead of me.” It sounded as if Becerra was anointed. He admitted that when he didn’t take the U.S. trade representative post in the Obama administration in 2008, his peers had a message. It “was articulated” to him he had a future in leadership.
Whether that early message translates into Becerra serving someday as speaker, leader or whip remains to be seen. Should he seek one of those higher slots, he’d likely face stiff competition from Crowley, Van Hollen and Wasserman Schultz.
Members, operatives and aides said that Becerra would have an edge among most, though not all, of the Hispanic Caucus, which is 26 Democrats strong. But the Mexican-American lawmaker who can give remarks easily in both English and Spanish — and often does — told CQ Roll Call he didn’t want to be elevated for his race but for what he has, or hasn't, done.
“I’m never gonna change the skin, right?” Becerra said, rubbing the back of his brown hand with his thumb for emphasis. “I’m very proud of what it implies, and what it has meant to me … but then again, in Congress, I hope to make my mark as a colleague and as a leader.
“It’s great that if folks see me that as a colleague and a leader, I’m good, and it also happens I’m of Latino descent, then great,” he continued. “Hopefully, it conveys a lot of messages.”
Correction, April 2, 1:15 p.m. The original story included an incorrect attribution to Becerra's characterization of conversations he had with party leaders during the time of his U.S. trade representative offer.
Correction, April 1, 6:07 p.m. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the time period in which Becerra lobbied fellow progressives in support of the public option during the health care debate. It was late 2009.