Cuellar Says Texas Will Turn Blue When Democrats Embrace Rural Areas
WASHINGTON – Rep. Henry Cuellar had no sooner returned to his native Texas, then he was being asked to reflect on one of the busiest and most consequential Decembers in the history of the U.S. Congress.
In the three days prior to the Christmas district break alone, the House passed a North American trade deal, voted on health care legislation and impeached a president.
And that’s nothing of the deluge of bills the House dealt with following a short break at Thanksgiving.
“Yes, it was a little busy this past week,” Rep. Cuellar said from Laredo, Texas.
“Nothing personal against Washington, but it’s good to be back in Texas,” he said with a laugh.
Despite the breakneck schedule — and a delayed flight that had him traveling in the early morning hours — one was hard pressed to sense a note of fatigue in Cuellar’s voice on Friday afternoon.
Instead, he spoke with excitement about doing the people’s business and about how much the House was able to accomplish in a matter of days.
“Health care is very important to my district, and of course, across the state and across the nation, so it was critical that we address the issue and we did so in a number of ways,” he said.
As a member of the House appropriations committee, Cuellar pushed for the inclusion of tens of millions of dollars in the latest federal spending plan to address nursing and other health-care worker shortages in rural communities, and to support community health centers wherever they may be.
“Another thing we did was provide funding to enable more people from Hispanic and other minority communities to work in health care,” he said.
“Given the shortages we’re facing today, it’s critical for us to increase the pool of candidates who want to go to medical school, and along with that, we’re working in partnership with Hispanic-serving organizations and historically black colleges and the like to ensure that once people graduate from their programs, they find work in the regions where they are needed most,” Cuellar said.
Asked whether it was difficult to build consensus for such issues given the current climate on Capitol Hill, the congressman said the past week showed differences in one area don’t have to block progress in others.
“Wednesday, the day we dealt with the impeachment, was a very difficult day for the country and certainly, for the House of Representatives,” he said. “People were very emotional, very divided … and yet the very same day we passed the USMCA trade agreement in a very bipartisan manner.
“Because I’m on the House Appropriations Committee, I do most of my work through the appropriations bill, and while there are times when we divide and vote along party lines, there are a lot of occasions when we advance things in a bipartisan way,” Cuellar continued. “For instance, on something like community centers, there’s widespread support for funding them because we all have them in our districts.”
But bipartisanship doesn’t have to begin and end with a commonality of interests, the congressman said.
“To me, the great tool one has to building bipartisan consensus on an issue is talking. Talking to people,” he said. “It’s a matter of going to a Republican colleague and saying, ‘Hey, I think this is important, can we increase the amount of money here?’ Or, ‘What can we do to be able to afford funding this or that program?’ Just having an open, day-to-day conversation goes a long way.”
Cuellar went on to say the same approach could be applied to the more than 300 bills, including 275 with strong bipartisan support, that were passed in the House, but remain in limbo in the Senate.
“I think in the case of local bills we can work it out,” the congressman said. “All it takes is for someone to be willing to look at the bills, look at their merit, and get it done. And I think the question that should really be driving this situation is ‘What is in the best interest of the American people?'”
“Now, that doesn’t mean these bills would get through the Senate exactly as the House drafted them, but that’s the process … you work things out,” he said.
But even the uber optimistic Cuellar admitted time is of the essence.
“That’s why in Congress we’re always talking about ‘windows’ for getting things done. You only have so much time before the elections heat up and the window closes,” he said.
Now that he’s back in his district, Cuellar said he expects to hear a lot from constituents. He said if the recent past is any indication, he doesn’t expect to hear about the impeachment or even climate change.
“It’s pretty interesting, the last time I had a district week, I wasn’t asked a single question about the impeachment; instead, people wanted to talk about three basic things: education, health care and the economy.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, everybody had an opinion about the impeachment, but what they wanted to talk about were their basic needs and a future in which those needs are met,” he said.
“I used to joke that I was elected to Congress, but the bulk of my experiences require me to be like a mayor, dealing with local issues like water quality and access to water, and health care and so on.”
Cuellar went on to say that so far, the majority of his constituents have shown about as much interest in the 2020 elections as they have in impeachment.
“There are certain people who engage right away, of course, but I think this early in the process most people don’t feel very strongly, one way or another, about the presidential election,” he explains. “I think one reason for that is that they’re focused on the local issues that are affecting their lives right now. The other reason is simply the calendar. I’m sure they’ll be paying much more attention next year.”
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