Facing a conservative business group Friday, Rep. Darrell Issa was the only member of San Diego County’s congressional delegation present not to give full-throated support for the group’s top legislative priority—expansion of the San Ysidro border crossing.
While Democrats Susan Davis, Juan Vargas and Scott Peters promised to push hard for a White House budget that includes $226 million for the “phase 2” expansion of the massively busy port of entry, Issa said: “I’m not going to pretend that we’re going to do this.”
Issa, a North County Republican whose district includes southern Orange County, told 600 members of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce that if Democrats want the border crossing funds, they’ll have to bend on another border issue—the Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico.
“You can’t be territorial on import and export,” Issa told the luncheon at the bayfront Marriott Hotel near the San Diego Convention Center. “If you want to get bipartisan buy-in on these trade issues, you have to take the big picture.”
Calling the XL pipeline “just as important to the national dialog” as San Diego’s border with Mexico, he said: “Right now, we’re telling Canada that we will stop the exports of their oil for no particular reason except that we can.”
But Issa incited bipartisan laughter when he responded to a comment by Vargas that the county’s congressional delegation had three border members—the Democrats who visited the border earlier Friday.
“We have a border crossing in my district,” Issa said. “Come up to San Onofre.”
To which Vargas, the successor to Bob Filner in the 51st District fronting the border, responded: “As a Democrat, there’s that border crossing—between San Diego and Orange County.”
But growing serious, Vargas said: “Honestly, we’re talking about international [borders] and not political. I’d love to see all five of us [including Rep. Duncan Hunter, absent from the stage] saying this is a priority.”
“It’s in the president’s budget. This thing makes sense,” he said of efforts to cut border waits that reach 4 hours. “Let’s do it. … The biggest chamber in the area has been in favor of it forever.”
Echoing Vargas, Peters said: “This is what you’ve told us is the most important thing to work on, so I’m committed to doing that. … It’s not just for San Diego. It’s for the whole state and the whole country.”
Davis noted that appropriations request are due this coming week and “everyone signing on to that is just a signature away.”
Moreover, she said companies are shifting operations from China to Mexico, “and we want to catch that. This is crucial. This is key to our economy.”
Peters noted how his Washington-based staff had counseled him to keep a low profile on the border crossing issue because of its conflation with immigration. But he said he pushed back: “We’re San Diego.”
Asked about opportunities for recent military veterans, Vargas inserted immigration, saying he once met a Marine who had married an undocumented immigrant.
Vargas quoted the man as saying: “I’m a Marine. Marines die. That’s what we do. We’re not afraid of fighting. But the only thing I’m afraid of is they’ll deport my wife and we won’t know what to do with our two children.”
Republicans hearing this story have told Vargas they’ll work with him to make sure such military spouses are considered in immigration reform.
Issa took issue with the idea that all undocumented immigrants in the United States should get a chance at citizenship.
“Let’s not pretend 11 million people all need a pathway to citizenship,” Issa said, pointing to “people who don’t belong here,” such as criminals, gang members or those who don’t have a job “and are living off the public trough. Those people need to go home.”
Issa conceded that farm interests should be satisfied via temporary visas.
“We need an effective guest worker program that we don’t have today,” he said.
But he balked at making them citizens, or somehow less than full citizens.
“I’m from the party that does not accept partial citizens,” Issa said, recalling its abolitionist roots. “We didn’t accept it when we stripped the black man from being without rights—or native Americans or women.”
To applause, he said: “So for California and San Diego, we need to make sure that any immigration reform includes [taking farm workers and criminals into consideration] and not just a discussion that 11 [million] are all the same.”
With KUSI-TV anchor Sandra Maas acting as moderator, the four Congress members also tackled other San Diego-centric issues, including defense, sequestration, health care and business prospects.
Only Rep. Hunter—whose district takes in East and inland North County—was missing. A chamber spokeswoman said he was in meetings, and Hunter’s spokesman confirmed he was in Washington.
Issa said efforts to raise state and federal taxes on small businesses could led to an exodus: “This state has told people to leave.”
“I personally predict that if we don’t switch quickly, we’ll keep small and innovative businesses until they break even and they start looking at the taxes and think they’re going [to have] to leave,” he said.
Citing no statistics, Issa said the pattern of UC San Diego “incubating” local companies that later exit the state is “one that concerns me more than anything else—and should concern every member of the chamber.”
Asked about his own top worries, Vargas first joked: “My greatest concern today was that Bob Filner was going to introduce me,” referring to his series of Democratic primary battles.
(Filner had introduced new chamber CEO Jerry Sanders, whom he praised for balancing the city budget as mayor and restoring its bond rating.)
But Vargas—a freshmen House member like Peters—said budget sequestration was his concern, with ship repairs and shipbuilding affected.
He said: “What does sequester mean? … In Spanish … it means to kidnap. This is what is happening here.”
Davis said defense sequestration would lead to fewer deployments and affect military readiness. But she saw a silver lining in Pentagon priorities.
“We are in a good space here in San Diego because we are rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific [region],” she said—moving from 50-50 split of attention to the Atlantic and Pacific to 60-40 Pacific.
Davis also thought National Institutes of Health sequester cuts would hurt the region, with its leading biotech sector—“all the things we really care about in San Diego. That’s got to change. That’s got to be part of the budget.”
She also backed the White House plan for universal preschool funding.
And the three Democrats voiced hope for more bipartisanship in Washington.
Peters spoke of bringing San Diego's culture of cooperation to D.C, and Davis said “a little bit of testosterone” was among the factors causing gridlock.
Vargas noted the presence of Republicanstate Sen. Joel Anderson, who Vargas said worked with him and other Sacramento Democrats on infrastructure issues.
Despite the partisan divide, Vargas sensed that in Washington’s background, “the grownups are negotiating.”