By Mike Lillis - 03/10/11 11:00 AM EST
From Democratic outcast to House leader, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has come a long way in just six years.
The Texas centrist made few friends among Democrats when he defeated a party veteran in a 2004 primary squeaker. This year, however, the party afforded forgiveness in the form of a top spot on the Steering and Policy Committee. The promotion makes Cuellar the only Blue Dog, just the second Hispanic member, and a rare new face on House Democrats’ leadership team.
“My focus as part of the leadership is to keep talking about the independent voters, independent voters — how do we get the independent voters back?” he said Wednesday in an interview from his office in the Rayburn House Office Building. “When the Democrats got the majority [in 2006], we won the independent voters. When we lost the majority [in 2010], we lost the independent voters. It’s a very simple formula.”
True to his role, Cuellar has no qualms taking on the more liberal party leaders.
On Wednesday, for instance, he went after the White House for taking a backseat throughout most of the budget-cut debate. Democrats, he said, are making progress highlighting the distinction in spending priorities between the two parties, “but it would be nice if we could get a little bit of help from our president.”
“The president needs to work with us on those priorities,” he said, “and there certainly has to be a lot more communication between the House, the Senate and the president.”
Cuellar also questioned the appointment of Vice President Joe Biden to spearhead the bipartisan negotiations in search of a deal. Biden met with party leaders on Thursday, but left the country a few days later to meet with leaders in Russia and Finland.
“If he’s the chief negotiator — at least that’s what I thought he was gonna be — and then he takes off in the middle of this debate, then where does that leave us?” Cuellar asked.
For the 55-year-old, it’s been quite a ride. After losing a bid in 2002 to unseat then-Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), Cuellar prepared to run against Bonilla again. But redistricting put him in Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez’s district. So he switched gears and launched a 2004 primary challenge to Rodriguez, who, at the time, was chairman of the Hispanic Caucus. Cuellar won by 58 votes and did not receive a warm welcome.
Democrats openly worried he would defect to the GOP, but those fears have proved unfounded.
Cuellar stayed in the Democratic Party and easily won reelection last year — with 69 percent of the vote — when Republicans won a record number of House seats, even as several of his fellow Texas Democrats lost.
And despite the concerns of some centrists that keeping Pelosi as party leader could alienate voters in swing districts, Cuellar has only good words for the minority leader.
“There’s nobody like her that can come up with strategy,” he said.
“When you’re the only person out there, you can get demonized very quickly. And that’s what the Republicans did: they demonized her,” he said. “She’s now adapting to this new reality where you’ve got to go after the independent voters.”
Cuellar is a big part of that effort. Last week, he broke with Pelosi and other House liberals on the Republican bill to extend government funding by two weeks — a measure that included $4 billion in cuts, largely to education programs.
“We have to show some cuts; we have to reduce [spending] somewhere,” he said. “As Democrats, we can’t just say, ‘No, no, no,’ to all the cuts. We have to make some cuts that are going to be difficult.”
Cuellar is also not afraid to break with leaders on trade issues. The Texas Democrat says he fully supports percolating trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
“When we talk about job growth, exports are one area that I feel is important,” he said.
Still, Cuellar is ready to side with Democratic leaders on the biggest fights of the year. For instance, he’s poised to push back against the GOP plan to cut another $57 billion from discretionary spending before October. And, as the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on border security, he’s opposed to Thursday’s much-discussed hearing — called by Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) — to examine the threat of Muslim extremism in the United States.
“He shouldn’t focus on a single religion or group,” Cuellar said. “Even some of the Republicans have told me, confidentially, ‘We wish he wouldn’t be doing this.’ “
Republicans also shouldn’t be holding their breath for Cuellar to repeat his 2000 endorsement of a Republican presidential candidate.
“I will be voting for the straight Democratic Party,” he said.