Divide over water, health takes a nasty turn

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley lawmakers have begun open warfare, as water and health care passions shatter the region's traditional bipartisan truce.

Democrats are demanding that Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, apologize for his rhetoric over health care reform votes. Nunes is holding his ground, saying the Democrats he calls his friends deserve defeat in November.

Percolating for many months, the regional conflict turned scalding hot during the House of Representatives' debate on health care legislation.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said it will be "very difficult" to collaborate again with Nunes unless the Republican repudiates allegations that Cardoza voted for health care reform in return for an Interior Department water delivery decision.

"I am deeply, personally disappointed in Mr. Nunes and his comments," Cardoza said.

"I think he should apologize."

Driving the point home, Cardoza used the Portuguese denunciation "Ele não tem vergonha" in discussing his fellow member of the House Portuguese Caucus. The phrase roughly translates as "He has no shame," and it carries a big cultural wallop.

Nunes, in turn, denounces Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

"They are part of this totalitarian regime in Washington," Nunes said, adding that "we know their votes are for sale, but we didn't know for how much."

Nunes cited Costa's and Cardoza's support for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

Nunes said Pelosi and her lieutenant, Rep. George Miller, D-Concord, want to cut off valley irrigation water because "they are radical environmental crazies," likening their water policies to those of the late Iraqi dictator Sad- dam Hussein and Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe.

Saddam's forces killed 30,000 to 60,000 of the so-called Marsh Arabs and destroyed their marshland home after an uprising encouraged by President George H.W. Bush's administration after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Mugabe's corrupt security forces practice torture and "politically motivated, arbitrary and unlawful killings," according to the State Department's annual human rights report. Some activists allege Mugabe's repressive tactics include cutting off water supplies to dissident cities.

Hurts legislation

In this fight, legislation and congressional effectiveness are becoming collateral damage. Nunes repeatedly has been blocked from offering California water amendments, which has fueled his frustration.

In turn, he sharpens his own weapons.

On Wednesday, a House subcommittee was scheduled to approve Costa's legislation offering federal funds for California water projects during droughts. Farmers support the measure.

Costa, though, withdrew his bill in the face of amendments prepared by Nunes and other Republicans.

Viewed politically, the amendments waiving the Endangered Species Act and turning on California irrigation pumps would box Costa into an election-year corner.

Voting for them would have rendered the bill unpalatable to other Democrats. Voting against them would have seemed anti-farmer.

Costa said other reasons contributed to the bill's postponement. He added, though, that "baseless and extreme rhetoric" has undercut Nunes' credibility.

Though rivalries have always existed, including within the same party, valley lawmakers have long preferred a collaborative spirit.

Cardoza and his predecessor, Gary Condit, for instance, declined to campaign against then-Republican colleague Richard Pombo of Tracy.

"The understanding we had was that we would never take on our valley people," recalled Tony Coelho, the former Dos Palos-area Democratic congressman who worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years.

"We had to work together to solve our problems."

Nunes excluded

Now, the fissures that began opening last year amid heated disagreements over San Joaquin River restoration plans are increasing.

Recently, for instance, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote an amendment to increase irrigation deliveries to valley farms and distributed the legislative language to other congressional offices.

Nunes, however, was deliberately excluded, and even other valley offices would not share the documents with him.

Nathan Monroe, a University of California at Merced political scientist, predicted that "through the November election" water disputes will "continue to cause friction."

Longer term, though, he suggested political self-interest could reunite feuding members.

"When it benefits these congressmen, their constituents and their re-election chances to work again on valley issues, I expect they'll do it without hesitation," Monroe said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.