WASHINGTON -- A well-delivered presidential speech cannot heal the growing conflict between San Joaquin Valley congressional Democrats and the Obama administration.
Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, provided reliable votes for Obama's agenda last year. Increasingly, though, they voice frustration and even anger at the White House performance.
"I'm pissed off," Cardoza said Wednesday. "The Obama administration did not cause these problems, but they're not working hard enough to fix them."
Cardoza underscored the conflict on the eve of Obama's State of the Union speech, when he denounced Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. Citing the department's "complete incompetence," Cardoza declared he had "lost confidence" in Donovan and all but demanded the Cabinet secretary's resignation.
The congressman blames the housing secretary for failing to adequately assist valley cities such as Merced, where the foreclosure crisis ranks among the nation's worst. He blames Obama for not visiting the San Joaquin Valley, wracked by chronic unemployment and extended drought.
"I don't consider an appearance on the Jay Leno Show a fact-finding mission in California," Cardoza said.
It's rare for a lawmaker to chastise so aggressively a Cabinet secretary from his own party. Cardoza is also apparently the first House member of either party to suggest Donovan would be better off resigning.
"Secretary Donovan has personally seen the impacts of foreclosures in (Cardoza's) congressional district and continues his commitment to aggressively addressing the foreclosure crisis in the district and across the country," HUD spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said Wednesday.
Roussell added that department funding decisions have been "thorough and fair," and have resulted in millions of dollars in grants for cities including Modesto, Fresno and Stockton.
But Cardoza's targeting of Donovan, which followed a tense Capitol Hill meeting between the congressman and Donovan's staff Tuesday afternoon, also reflects broader tensions. On an array of issues, Costa and Cardoza are putting the White House on notice.
Most recently, Costa blasted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's latest effort to provide more irrigation water to valley farmers. Costa turned up the volume Wednesday, saying Salazar was "either out of touch with reality, completely misinformed or trying to dupe the valley" with an announcement that more water will be delivered.
"I'm angry and frustrated," Costa said Wednesday, adding that the White House staff has a "tin ear and a kind of arrogance" in their decision-making.
Costa and Cardoza belong to the House Blue Dog coalition, whose 50-plus members represent moderate-to- conservative congressional districts. For these lawmakers, keeping distance from the Democratic president can make political sense.
Given the Democrats' potential political calculations, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said he doesn't know "if the people will buy" what Costa and Cardoza are saying about the Obama team and its agenda.
"It's a step in the right direction," Nunes said. "Most of the time, they have decided to stick with the administration and the (Democratic) leadership."
Overall, Obama has commanded great loyalty from congressional Democrats. He prevailed on 96.7 percent of last year's votes where the White House had a declared position, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly.
Cardoza voted for Obama's position 96 percent of the time last year, the Congressional Quarterly tally found, while Costa supported Obama's position 93 percent of the time. Both Democrats, for instance, voted for a big health care reform bill last year, and Cardoza supported a cap-and-trade global warming bill that Costa opposed.
Cardoza is facing a potential general election challenge from Republican Mike Berryhill, who comes from a prominent GOP political family. On Wednesday, Berryhill contrasted what he called "Cardoza's rhetoric as compared to his voting record and stewardship of the spending spree as a member of the Rules Committee that drives the agenda of the House."