Craig's departure makes guest-worker plan iffy

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley lawmakers return to a crowded post-Labor Day agenda having lost one of their top congressional allies to a sex scandal.

The resignation Saturday of Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho deprives an agricultural guest-worker bill of its most vehement Republican supporter. Already hanging by a thread, the bill long sought by valley farmers and farmworkers now needs new Capitol Hill patrons.

"It's a devastating blow," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "He's been the lead guy in the Senate, and I don't know who's going to pick this up for him."

Chief Republican author of the agricultural guest-worker bill, Craig came under intense GOP pressure to quit after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport men's room. Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct but denies trying to engage in gay sex with an undercover policeman.

River protection at stake

The guest-worker bill's drastically diminished prospects are a sobering reminder of the uncertainties facing other valley congressional priorities.

Congress must finish a dozen big spending bills potentially packed with local projects, such as protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

It must confront an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plan, and it must re-debate the Iraq war. And it must do it all amid growing partisan rancor.

"I think Democrats have not fulfilled any of their campaign promises," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. "They promised reform, and they are back to their same old business."

Democrats retort that Re- publicans are being obstruc- tionist, and lawmakers such as Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, can point to progress on a multibillion-dollar farm bill loaded with new money for the valley's fruit and vegetable growers.

Lawmakers from both parties agree that it's already been a tough year, filled with long hours but hit-or-miss legislating.

The House was in session for 107 days through July 31, compared with 77 days in a comparable period last year. The House took 425 recorded votes through July 31, compared with 230 last year.

Nonetheless, out of 3,269 House bills introduced this year, only 35 bills have been enacted into law. Significantly, Congress has yet to finish any of the must-pass appropriations bills needed to keep the government running in the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Lawmakers use these bills to promote regional projects.

House versions of the spend- ing bills, for instance, include provisions to strengthen delta levees, reinforce California's anti-methamphetamine campaigns and encourage the state's efforts to cut car emissions.

Senate versions add a San Joaquin Valley ozone study and a new Food and Drug Admin- istration research center in Davis. Starting with $2 million in federal funding, the proposed FDA center focusing on fruit- and-vegetable safety would be the first of its kind on the West Coast.

The House has passed its appropriations bills, but the Senate has not. In theory, the bills must be passed, negotiated and passed again before October. In practice, Congress has two like-lier possibilities.

One is that a stymied Congress, unable to complete separate bills, will lump most of the money into one omnibus appropriations bill in December.

"Yes, I think we will likely see an omnibus bill, and more opportunity for Democrats to hide wasteful spending," Radanovich said. "Hopefully the valley's priorities will stay intact."

The appropriations omnibus could become a vehicle for Radanovich's San Joaquin River restoration bill.

The bill would authorize work to restore the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, depleted by decades of irrigation diversions.

Supporters are struggling to offset the federal costs, pegged at $500 million. Still, Radanovich said he expects the House Resources Committee will mark up the legislation this month.

Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno added that "there is still a lot of time" to get the San Joaquin River bill through the committee.

Farm bill also pending

A second possibility is that President Bush repeatedly will veto an omnibus bill after attacking it as bloated. This could force Congress to simply keep spending at current levels. Nunes predicted this will happen, effec-tively killing valley priorities including the San Joaquin River package.

"There aren't going to be any vehicles moving," Nunes said.

Apart from the appropriations bills, the Senate must write its farm bill, which has passed the House. Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised Craig he would bring up the agricultural guest-worker plan for potential inclusion in the farm bill.

The so-called AgJOBS bill would grant legal U.S. residency to 1.5 million illegal immigrant farmworkers. It also would streamline an existing guest-worker program.

Craig introduced the legislation in 2003, long before Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein started supporting it, and he intensely lobbied his fellow Republican senators last year. But even when he was at his most powerful, as a member of Senate leadership, Craig had a hard time swaying fellow conservatives.

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