As the dust settles from the presidential inauguration, the Obama administration turns to the work of transforming rhetoric into actual policy. The deficit, immigration and gun control are all on the front burner. Thursday, California Senator Dianne Feinstein unveiled legislation to ban military-style rifles and large ammunition clips. What will it take to get that legislation passed, and what role will California's Congressional delegation play on that and other issues?
We talk with Marc Sandalow of the University of California's Washington Center in D.C.
Mark Sandalow: California's clout is based on who's in power. They got 38 Democratic members in Congress, which I believe is twice as much as any other state. Californians are Democrats. So while the Republicans control the House of Representitives, they're simply not as powerful. There clearly are some Republicans who have clout; Kevin McCarthy is the WHIP, he's the number three guy in the House. so there's some Californians with importance. But for California to express its clout in Congress, Democrats need to win the majority.
Scott Shafer: And that may or may not happen in a couple years. If it were to happen, obviously Nancy Pelosi would become speaker. But as minority leader, there have been two big votes in the past couple weeks; one on Sandy storm relief and the other on avoiding this fiscal cliff, both had a majority of Democrat votes. What does that do to Nancy Pelosi's clout, if anything?
Sandalow: Every time Nancy Pelosi keeps her Democratic Party together, even in the minority, it forces Republicans to do things they might not otherwise want to do. For example, with the aid for the hurricane relief, there are a lot of Republicans who simply didn't want to vote to increase aid for anything; they don't want to spend money. So as John Boehner convinces them, "Look, I need some of your votes," if Pelosi can keep all of her Democrats in line, she can force more Republicans to do things they don't want to do.
Shafer: A big issue in this Congress is going to be gun control. Senator Feinstein this week introducing legislation, another Assault Weapons Ban reducing the size of ammunition clips and so on. How heavy a lift is that going to be politically and how much power, clout, does Dianne Feinstein have to get that done?
Sandalow: It's suprising people outside of California how difficult gun control is. Because these measures would be no-brainers for the most part in the state of California. This was very difficult for Feinstein back in 1994 when she passed it, and some blame her for having Democrats losing the House the following year because of it. It's a huge lift. It's not difficult for urban Democrats, and west coast Democrats, folks whether they're from Los Angeles or New York to vote in favor of gun control. It's a different story if you're a Democrat representing a rural district in North Carolina.
Shafer: On the other hand, you've got Mike Thomspon, who represents the northern part of California, the north coast. He's been leading the charge, helping to lead the charge on gun control. By I guess he's in a safe district, so he doesn't have to worry about casting a tough vote.
Sandalow: Mike Thompson is a Purple Heart winner in Vietnam, he owns guns, he goes hunting. There are an awful lot of people, say, in the Bay Area who call him a gun nut. There are people in his district, which stands past Napa, who just call him a sportsman. The NRA calls him an enemy, they actually gave him an "F" rating. And the reason is while he is adament in protecting the second amendment right to bear arms, he's against assault weapons. If Obama can put people like Mike Thompson forward, Democrats will do very well on this issue.
Shafer: Another big issue coming up in this Congress, immigration reform. There's a big expectation that the Republicans are going to come to the table on this. What's at stake in California, if immigration reform gets done in a comprehensive way, with some sort of path to ultimate citizenship, what difference would it make for California?
Sandalow: California has far more immigrants than anyplace else and an awful lot of them are having snuck across the border, don't have documents, and if there is a path toward citizenship, no state will have more immigrants applying for citizenship than California. So it could make an enormous difference. Republicans look at this; they look at what happened in California almost a generation ago now where Pete Wilson, to save his political career, demonized the Mexicans, "They keep coming across the border." It worked in the short-term and Democrats have done outstandingly well in California ever since. There is great fear across the nation among Republicans that if they continue to demonize immigrants, they're going to pay the same price.
Shafer: Mark, the president is going to have a lot of vacancies to fill in is cabinent and throughout government. Who are some of the prominent Californians being menitioned as potential appointments?
Sandalow: The one name everybody talks about is Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. There's an opening at Transportation, people expect that Ray LaHood will be retiring, so there's talk that he could do that. When Clinton was president, they talked about how his other job was governor of California. He loved coming to the Bay Area, he came out to California something like every other month for his presidency. You don't feel the same love from Obama, and Obama started his undergraduate career in Southern California. So he has roots to California, and he has loved trips to California during the campagin, because California gave millions and millions of dollars to him. But now that he doesn't have to run for reelection, I'm not sure the connection is as close to California as it has been in other Democratic presidencies.