10:01pm

Thu August 18, 2011
Politics

For Debt Panel's Becerra, No Egos While Negotiating

As politicians go, California Rep. Xavier Becerra has a relatively low profile considering that he's been in Congress for 18 years. He's the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the former head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the first Latino to serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

When the Democrats had the House majority, Nancy Pelosi appointed him to the new post of assistant to the speaker. And earlier this month, she chose him to join the supercommittee tasked with finding a way to cut $1 trillion from the federal deficit.

There's a reason for Becerra's success, says California Rep. Grace Napolitano.

"He works well with Republican and Democrat, not just on our side," she says. "The respect that he has in Congress from other members is very evident because they do rely on his advice."

Foreshadowing

Becerra is also the top Democrat on the subcommittee on Social Security, a program he has said should be protected from cuts.

"Do I believe that Republicans should succeed in cutting Social Security benefits for seniors when Social Security didn't add one single penny to these deficits and this national debt that we have today?" he said in an interview on ABC. "I don't."

That interview took place before Congress made a deal on raising the debt ceiling, before there was a supercommittee. But in that same interview, Becerra sounded as if he knew what he'd soon be facing.

"To be a true negotiator you have to say, 'I'm willing to put my ego and my Kool-Aid aside and go to the negotiating table and try to reach out a deal with folks who I don't totally agree with,'" he said.

Now that Becerra is on the nation's most closely watched panel of negotiators, you can expect him to work really hard at it, says Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Vargas has known Becerra since 1980, when they were both attending Stanford.

"As a law student he really hit the books and came across as sort of this clean-cut Boy Scout, milk-drinking type of individual," Vargas says. "In fact, he was, I would say, a model student."

'A Maverick'

In recent elections, Becerra has won more than 80 percent of the vote in his district, but during his career he's also faced political setbacks, arguably of his own making. During his first term in Congress, he took on the late, legendary congressional power broker Dan Rostenkowski, unsuccessfully opposing him over cuts in benefits to legal immigrants.

Later, his trip to Cuba caused Republican lawmakers from Florida to quit the Hispanic Caucus he then led. Reportedly, he even got on the wrong side of Pelosi, his mentor, when he complained that party leaders had too quickly abandoned the public option in the health care overhaul.

But what some analysts have seen as mistakes, Vargas sees as a plus.

"I think the fact that he's willing to stand up to his leadership, to be a maverick, has earned him respect," he says. "I think it will serve him well on this supercommittee because it sends a signal that he's not just going to toe the party line."

There will have to be a lot of people like that on the supercommittee or this small, select group may fail on a very large stage.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.