Long shunned, Dems embrace Cuellar

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) is finally a member of the club.

Shunned by Democratic colleagues years ago, Cuellar has worked to build relationships in the House and is no longer considered an outsider in his own caucus.

Many House Democrats were livid with Cuellar when he decided to challenge Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) in a 2004 primary after falling short against Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) two years earlier.

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Cuellar defeated Rodriguez, who at the time headed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), by only 58 votes. There was no welcoming party for Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2000, when he arrived on Capitol Hill.

Democrats openly worried about Cuellar defecting to the GOP, a rumor Cuellar repeatedly shot down.

Rodriguez challenged Cuellar in the 2006 primary, attracting endorsements and money from his former colleagues in the lower chamber. Liberal blogs attacked Cuellar as a friend of Bush, noting that the conservative-leaning Club for Growth backed him. Groups on the left, including MoveOn.org, rallied for Rodriguez.

That race was nasty. Rodriguez’s campaign distributed fliers with a picture of then-President Bush embracing Cuellar at his State of the Union address, with the caption “George Bush thinks Henry Cuellar is ‘chulo’ ” — Spanish slang for “pretty boy.”

Cuellar won the rematch easily, beating Rodriguez by a dozen percentage points.

Cuellar’s most “interesting” experience, as he calls it, was becoming a member of the CHC after defeating the group’s chairman.

Times have changed. Cuellar, a supporter of gun rights and an opponent of abortion rights, has been a team player at crucial times this Congress.

Days before the House climate change vote, Cuellar was telling a colleague he was going to vote no when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tapped him on the shoulder.

“Henry,” Pelosi said, “can I talk to you about your vote?”

President Barack Obama also lobbied Cuellar, who subsequently voted for the bill.

Under pressure from the White House, the 54-year-old lawmaker also backed the healthcare bill after securing provisions on medical malpractice.

Reflecting on his time in Congress, Cuellar told The Hill, “I was looking at it long term — ‘The first term will be tough. Time will heal it. People will say things, but then it will be fine.’ And it was.”

CHC Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) said it was difficult for Cuellar at first, but he worked through it.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said, “I think he’s weathered it. He’s not a shy person.”

Cuellar certainly isn’t shy. On his website, Cuellar boasts that he is “the most degreed member of Congress,” noting he has earned five advanced degrees. He also touts his business-friendly credentials, pointing out that The Wall Street Journal dubbed him a “Pro-growth member [of Congress] in the John F. Kennedy mold.”

Some of the sting from the Cuellar-Rodriguez battles eased after Rodriguez returned to Congress by beating Bonilla in 2006.

Rodriguez and Cuellar have mended fences and have worked together on many issues, especially border security, as their districts both border Mexico.

In an interview, Rodriguez said, “You have to work with people and work with them on the issues and not on anything else. You have to get away from any personalities. You might have disagreements over issues and a variety of different things, but it’s about problem-solving. So it’s no longer an issue; you just move on.”

Cuellar, born as one of eight children to migrant workers, still votes against his party. He rejected the first House bailout bill, which was voted down, but backed the final version that passed in the fall of 2008.

Cuellar was also one of 27 Democrats who opposed the House financial regulatory reform bill, a top priority for Obama.

Cuellar consistently works with members on both sides of the aisle, a rarity for House members.

In fact, he says his best friend in the lower chamber is a Republican: Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas).

Cuellar, who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, is a huge proponent of trade and is expected to play a leading role as the issue heats up in the next couple of years.

He was a proud backer of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was fiercely opposed by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders. House Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, considered punishing the 15 Democrats who backed CAFTA. But that vote did not impede him when he was appointed chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee in 2009.

Cuellar, a father of two daughters, has also expressed his dismay with Obama for vowing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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He said he has been talking extensively with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. Cuellar says Kirk believes that pending trade pacts, such as the Colombia deal, could be passed this year.

That debate, whenever it happens, will divide the Democratic Caucus. And true to his style, Cuellar is not planning to take a backseat.

Cuellar recently launched a pro-trade caucus, a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans who are working to pass the trade deals that were negotiated during the Bush administration.