The No. 4 House Democrat sounds like he's got a preference for which lawmaker House Republicans choose Thursday to be majority leader.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra has praise for Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, saying the Idaho Republican is both straightforward and easy to work with, and should not be underestimated.
"One of the pure things about Raúl Labrador is that you know what you're getting. And while he's extremely conservative, far more conservative than I would like, at least I know that," Becerra said on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program Sunday. "And it's easy to come to terms with someone so long as you know where they stand. You can reach common ground with a person like that."
Becerra noted that his fellow Californian Kevin McCarthy, now the GOP whip, has "a lot of experience," adding, "I know McCarthy is going to work this very hard ."
He would not make any predictions about the outcome of the race, but he described Labrador as "smart, capable [and] very committed." Becerra also noted Labrador's role working with the "group of eight" bipartisan lawmakers on an immigration overhaul, saying Labrador "understands immigration law."
"If Raúl Labrador has decided to throw his hat in the ring, it's because he not only believes that he has a shot but he has something to say," Becerra said.
Becerra wouldn't say who he'd rather work with, but noted it's not about agreement with the other side, it's about finding "common ground."
In the wide-ranging Sunday show interview with host Steve Scully, National Journal's Tim Alberta and the author of this post, the California Democrat stayed on message and deflected criticism of President Barack Obama's White House.
But Becerra's answers can be viewed as revealing with a little reading between the lines.
Asked how often he talks with the White House and whether he prefers the Obama style or the more engaged techniques of President Bill Clinton, Becerra demurred.
"All presidents do it a little differently," he said. "President Obama, what he does is he tries to give us a chance to move. ... [W]hat he does is he really thinks through things, and then when he's ready to act he'll consult."
"I think [Clinton] came around a little more often than President Obama to meet with members of Congress, at the same time sometimes having seen President Clinton didn't necessarily mean you knew where he was going to go," Becerra said. "President Bush was a little bit more difficult to calculate because he sort of shot from the hip quite a bit."
When Scully pressed Becerra on whether he favors one style over another, the California Democrat gave a big hint.
"I have learned over the years that it's always best to be in communication as often as you can," he said. "I understand the president has lots of pressure and I don't get to see his schedule every day but I think the more you're in contact just checking in, the better off you are. It helps to get things done when you have constant communication, and so rather than talk about how you do it, I think the best thing to do is just get out there and have that communication."
He sounded a hopeful tone on chances for an immigration overhaul, saying "the votes are there" and he has "never seen us closer to getting it done," but noted he has asked the president to take executive action should legislation remain stuck in gridlock.
Becerra dismissed any critique about Democratic fatigue or frustration that the three top leaders in the party don't seem to be going anywhere any time soon, and said the caucus has a process for forcing change if it wants to.
"Tomorrow the Democratic Caucus members could ask for a vote to replace any one of us who are in leadership," he said. "We are on a leash. A very short leash. At any point in time any member of our caucus can yank on that leash and say we want to vote."
Does he have a preference on whether Anna G. Eshoo of California or Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey becomes ranking member on Energy and Commerce? Given his role in leadership, he is "neutral," he said, just before lavishing compliments.
Eshoo is a "dynamic force" on the committee, and someone he has known for a long time since they both arrived in Congress in 1993.
"She has worked hard. There is no one who knows more about the internet and what it means for IP to have robust laws that protect all that high tech and biotech," he said.
As for Pallone, "I've known him for a long time too," Becerra said, calling his colleague "one of our leaders when it comes to talking about the issues."
Pallone is "another valuable member" of the committee and helps Democrats "frame the issues for the American public."
"He's tireless in making sure that members are on the House floor ready to debate," Becerra said. "We're winners either way. It's a tough fight and I wish them both well."
Becerra also fiercely defended the White House in the face of criticism about trade of five Taliban detainees to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
"Those politicians who are out there saying that we were blindsided — absolutely not true," he said. Becerra said no one walks in the president's shoes, and that lawmakers may not have known "when" a prisoner swap would happen, they knew "the how ... the what."
"I'm not going to judge the president for having successfully secured the release of an American soldier who had been captive for five years," he said. "The operative words here are Bowe Bergdahl is safe in America."
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