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Border bill fits Rep. Henry Cuellar's history of bipartisanship

Border bill fits Rep. Henry Cuellar's history of bipartisanship


Washington Bureau

Published: 22 July 2014 11:39 PM

WASHINGTON — Rep. Henry Cuellar has never been shy about breaking party ranks. But in recent weeks, the Laredo Democrat has taken that to new levels.

He alienated the White House by publicly — and relentlessly — prodding the president to visit the border during a recent trip to Texas.

And he angered fellow Democrats and the rest of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus by teaming up with Sen. John Cornyn, the deputy GOP leader in the Senate, on a bill to speed deportation of Central American children.

“I find it interesting that everybody says, ‘Be bipartisan.’ But when you actually do something bipartisan, some people criticize that,” Cuellar said. “I do the talk, and I do the walk.”

Hardly any Democrats have embraced the Cornyn-Cuellar bill. The Hispanic caucus pointedly distanced itself.

That’s not an unusual position for Cuellar, now in his fifth term in the House after a long career in Austin. He found himself getting cold shoulders from fellow Democrats for taking on an incumbent to win his House seat and backing President George W. Bush. And while he considers himself a staunch Democrat, his moderate record and frequent reaches across the aisle stand out in an era of hyper-polarization in Congress.

“He is one of the least partisan people I know,” Cornyn said. “I found him to be somebody who is easy to work with as long as it meets two criteria: what’s good for his district and what’s good for Texas.”

Dismay at Cuellar’s involvement has been acute among advocates of an immigration overhaul that might lead to citizenship for 11 million people in the country illegally, though Cuellar remains an avowed supporter of such a bill.

“He’s had his 15 minutes of fame,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group. “The cable news shows all wanted to interview him because he was criticizing the president. To me, it smacks of opportunism.”

The Cornyn-Cuellar bill would modify a 2008 law that has let unaccompanied children arriving from Central America stay for years as their cases work through the immigration system. Under their plan, federal authorities could deport these children within days, as they can with children arriving without permission from Mexico.

Since October, more than 60,000 children have flooded across the Southwestern border from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Most immediately turn themselves in, knowing they can take advantage of the provision to potentially stay for years.

Backlash from immigrant-rights groups and Democrats has been intense. They say the legislation would gut legal protections for the children.

Cuellar’s criticism of Obama ahead of the president’s fundraising swing to Dallas and Austin this month landed the Texan on several TV news shows. A top White House official called Cuellar privately, urging him to tone down his attacks after he suggested that going to Texas without seeing the problems at the border could create a “Katrina moment” similar to Bush’s image-crushing flyover of a hurricane-bashed New Orleans.

Cuellar didn’t back down.

“They didn’t put pressure on me. We had a conversation,” Cuellar said. “If he’s asking for $3.7 billion, he calls it a humanitarian crisis, he needs to go” to the border, he added, referring to Obama’s request for funds to deal with the crisis.

He enjoyed some vindication when the Hispanic caucus met Wednesday evening with Obama. In Cuellar’s retelling, one caucus leader — he wouldn’t name names – expressed disappointment to Obama that he didn’t go to the border.

Cuellar, 58, routinely ranks as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. So if anyone might be willing to work with Republicans, he’s a likely candidate. He’s one of a dwindling number of Blue Dogs — the fiscally conservative Democrats who used to command the center and serve as a vital swing bloc.

“I am a Democrat,” he said. “I will always stay as a Democrat.”

But he arrived in Congress as something of a pariah.

As a state lawmaker, he supported Bush for president in 2000. The next year, Republican Gov. Rick Perry named him secretary of state — Texas’ chief election officer and the governor’s emissary on Mexico and border affairs.

Cuellar lost a 2002 congressional race to a powerful GOP lawmaker, Henry Bonilla. In 2004, he took on Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, who happened to chair the Hispanic caucus. Cuellar’s narrow primary victory created a split in the Texas delegation and the Hispanic caucus.

Weeks before a bitter 2006 rematch, news photographers caught Bush affectionately cupping Cuellar’s smiling cheeks at the State of the Union address, an image Rodriguez used to paint his rival as overly cozy with Republicans.

But Cuellar won the primary handily. He even drew a rare endorsement from the conservative Club for Growth, which rarely backs Democrats.

He calls his partnership with Cornyn unremarkable in many ways, at least to anyone who watched him in the Legislature. He concedes that was an easier time and place to cross party lines.

“My voting habits haven’t changed,” he said, calling Washington “hyperpartisan” compared to Austin in those days. “The politically expedient thing to do is to vote straight party. … The American public is so fed up with this divide.”

And even as he rose through the Democratic ranks — winning a coveted spot on the Appropriations Committee and serving as a junior member of the party’s leadership team — he kept up his bipartisan habits.

“He’s built up a lot of credibility and admiration in the entire Texas delegation, particularly on my side,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, a Republican who leads the Homeland Security Committee and has worked with Cuellar on border security. “We know he’s not trying to pull a fast one to score political points.”

Cuellar’s district covers hundreds of miles of border, from just outside McAllen well past Laredo.

He noted that 45 percent of U.S.-Mexico trade travels through Laredo and that the city sits in the heart of the huge Eagle Ford Shale, a source of energy and jobs.

“I’m pro-trade. I’m pro-energy. I’m pro-business. I represent my area,” he said.

His roots in Laredo run deep. His brother, Martin, is the elected Webb County sheriff. They’re among eight children born to migrant farm workers.

Abraham Rodriguez, the county Democratic Party chairman, said there’s no indication Cuellar has suffered politically at home. Cuellar is known for serving the district, particularly on veterans issues, he said.

But “the party doesn't particularly agree with criticizing the president,” Rodriguez said. “His criticism should be ... directed at Congress” for failing to pass an immigration bill.

Since beating Rodriguez in the 2006 rematch, Cuellar has faced no primary opposition in the heavily Democratic district. He’s all but certain to win another term this fall, with no major-party opponent.

“He’s a people person and a good listener,” said Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, a longtime friend. “He’s a true public servant — someone that not only is visible to his constituents but communicates with them.”;