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N.M. Delegation Heads to Capitol With High Hopes

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
2nd District conservative goes into session looking for common ground across the aisle
    WASHINGTON— Many politicians play to the political center. Rep. Steve Pearce is not one of them. "I'm very conservative," the Hobbs native and Republican said during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. "People who knew me in college tell I'm exactly the same— conservative."
    But Pearce also said "conservative" isn't always synonymous with "partisan." As he begins his second term in Congress, representing New Mexico's conservative-leaning 2nd Congressional District, he said he hopes to help Republicans and Democrats find some common ground.
    "We have to do something about the partisanship," Pearce said. "It's coming from both sides, Republicans and Democrats. Once the election is over, we have to come in and start reaching across the aisles and using the best intellect on both sides. I mean that sincerely."
    One issue that everyone generally agrees on is the need to protect and expand the nation's water supply.
    "Water is one of the most dominant issues we face," Pearce said. "It hasn't slapped us in the face yet as a nation, but it will be the issue for the rest of our lives."
    Hailing from one of the most arid districts in the nation, Pearce said water is an issue he can lead on. He sits on the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over myriad federal water issues.
    "I think I might know water as well as anyone up here— not trying to sell other people short— but it's a very complex issue and I feel very articulate on it," Pearce said.
    He said he expects Congress this year to appropriate money to pay for a pilot project at New Mexico Tech, which would put a revolutionary new water purification and filtration system to the test. The New Mexico Tech invention could provide for desalinization of water in much greater quantities than is currently possible, he explained.
    "It would be the most significant (water-related) development in your lifetime or mine," Pearce said.
    Water rights issues often are in the jurisdiction of governors and state legislatures, but interstate water issues will force the federal government to play an increasingly active role in mediating the disputes, he said.
    "We're going to have to deal with it," Pearce said.
    Pearce, a former businessman in the oil and gas industry, also said he plans to spend a lot of time dealing with issues on the president's agenda. Social Security and tax code reform lead that list.
    Pearce said Social Security needs to be reformed, but he isn't sold on the idea of privatizing it. He said he will look closely at all proposals to reform the retiree savings account, but it is possible that a consensus for change will not emerge.
    He said young people— those at the early stages of their careers— must believe in the system for it to work.
    "The younger generation has to buy into it," Pearce said. "They have to believe in it. Right now, more people believe an alien will land in Roswell than believe they will see their Social Security."
    Pearce said he expects to be active in a debate about restructuring the tax code. He said he would support a proposal to enact a national sales tax because it would be simpler. He said it would also force drug dealers and others who earn money illegally to ultimately pay taxes on their income when they turn it around and spend it.
    Pearce is a former Air Force pilot who flew supply missions in Vietnam, and he said he has no regrets about his unqualified support of the war in Iraq. But that's not to say he doesn't have moments of anxiety about the still-violent situation there.
    "I sit here and worry about Iraq," Pearce admitted.
    Pearce is still convinced that the American invasion was justified. He said history— especially in Korea and Germany— shows that reforming an entire government and political system doesn't happen overnight.
    "The people who say 'let's get the election over and bring the troops home a year from now,' I always try to caution against that because it's a very slow process," Pearce said. "But it's one well worth investing in."
    The congressman declined to speculate on his political future. Many observers back in New Mexico are certain he is gearing up for a U.S. Senate run in 2008 if Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., decides not to seek a seventh term. Pearce ran for Sen. Jeff Bingaman's seat in 2000, but lost in the primary election.
    "I tell people I'm still licking my wounds from my last (House) race," Pearce said. "And Pete's looking as healthy as I've ever seen him look. It's way premature.
Democrat is optimistic his party can holds its ground on important national issues
    W'ASHINGTON— Don't expect to see Rep. Tom Udall fretting about the future of the Democratic Party. The New Mexico Democrat said that despite losing the presidential race last year, as well as some House and Senate seats, his party is not in crisis. Much of the country remains closely divided, a point Democrats can work from, he said.
    "I think we're in a pretty good position," Udall said with sunny optimism on a dreary day in the nation's capital. "I don't see the election as a cataclysmic shift in where the country is going."
    Udall, who was elected to a fourth term in Congress last November, said instead of moping, Democrats should polish up their existing message and work harder to win voters next time.
    Democrats stand for educational opportunity, health care access, environmental protections, and equal opportunity for all people— issues that matter to a broad cross-section of Americans, he said.
    "The most important thing for us is to stand up for our values," Udall said. "We just need to remind people of the progress the Democratic Party has brought to this country. We need to remind people these are things we have worked on and fought for and we're not going to retreat on them."
    Udall was practically born with Democratic values in his blood. He is the son of Stewart Udall, a former Arizona congressman who served as Interior secretary under President John F. Kennedy. His late uncle, Morris Udall, was an Arizona congressman and one-time presidential candidate. And his cousin, Mark, is a congressman from Colorado.
    Udall is intimately familiar with Western issues, including public lands, water rights and Indian affairs. But nothing seems more important to his northern New Mexico constituency than education, he said.
    "The thing I hear more about than anything is that we need more money for No Child Left Behind," Udall said, referring to the major education initiative proposed by President Bush and adopted by Congress in the president's first term. "That's a big priority for me in New Mexico, and nationally for the Democrats in Congress."
    Udall said he will push for additional money to enact key portions of the law, especially those that aim to help schools in poor communities. Democrats consistently criticize the Bush administration for failing to request enough money for No Child Left Behind. Republicans counter that education spending is higher than it's ever been.
    "We have many schools that would qualify for this," Udall said. "New Mexico would do a lot better than other states if we could get No Child Left Behind fully funded."
    As a member of the House Small Business Committee, Udall said he expects to work on the president's proposal to revamp and simplify the U.S. tax code.
    "Our tax system has gotten so complex that people just don't have the ability to fill out their own taxes," Udall said. "We need to simplify it."
    With an unusually large number of veterans in his district, Udall said he always keeps a close eye on the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said Congress must ensure there is enough money to pay medical expenses of wounded soldiers returning from Iraq.
    "The people that are returning have certain health care needs," said Udall, who has visited injured soldiers in the hospital on many occasions. "We need to make sure the funds are there so they don't have to wait in line. We need to make sure we're there for them."
    He said water issues are likely to consume more and more of his time as a member of the House Resources Committee.
    "Water is looming as a big issue, and the federal government needs to be a good partner and a good neighbor," he said.
    During his last term, Udall became a leader in opposition to the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement more surveillance powers.
    The controversial measure is set to expire at the end of this year and Udall said he will push for revisions. In the last Congress, Udall introduced a bill that would have given authorities less wiretapping authority, but Bush threatened to veto it.
1st District congresswoman willing to pay the price for her political independence
    WASHINGTON— During her first six years in Congress, Republican leaders saw Rep. Heather Wilson as a respectful and promising junior member, worthy of a political fast lane in the crowded House.
    The GOP brass lavished the Albuquerque Republican with plum committee assignments, big-league fundraising help and an occasional place at the podium during national news conferences.
    For a while, it seemed that Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate and former Rhodes Scholar, could do no wrong in the eyes of the Republicans.
    Then, last summer, the Abu Ghraib prison scandals broke in Iraq. Suddenly, the congresswoman was lecturing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the importance of the Geneva Conventions during a nationally televised Armed Services Committee hearing.
    A few months later, when House Republicans considered relaxing their ethics rules to protect Majority Tom DeLay from a fundraising scandal, Wilson publicly opposed the move.
    "I'm an independent person," Wilson said during a recent interview in her office. "I fight for New Mexico and I try to do it politely and with some grace. But I can't be bullied."
    To critics, Wilson's high-profile displays of political independence seemed like a calculated attempt to soften her image in Albuquerque's moderate 1st Congressional District. It's a charge Wilson vigorously disputes.
    But no matter what her motivation, Wilson's recent breaks with GOP leadership on sensitive issues appear to have come at a cost. Last week, she lost her seat on the House Armed Services Committee.
    Rep. Joe Barton, a Texan and close friend of DeLay, refused to sign a waiver that would have allowed Wilson to serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Armed Services panel. Instead, she will serve on the energy committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
    As Wilson begins her fourth full term in Congress (she first took office when former Rep. Steve Schiff died in 1998), she said her increasing seniority should help her remain a force on key issues.
    As former chair of a special Medicaid Task Force in the House, Wilson said she plans to continue focusing on efforts to revamp the program, which provides health care for low-income people. She called Medicaid "a looming crisis" that accounts for nearly 10 percent of the federal budget. Wilson said the program must put more emphasis on preventative and long-term care.
    She conceded that some Republicans are likely to propose Medicaid cuts to offset the growing federal deficit.
    "There are people who will be looking in a tight budget year at what we can get out of there," Wilson said. "My focus has always been on Medicaid reform and making sure it better meets the needs of the people who depend on it."
    She said Medicaid currently pays to treat chronically ill people, but invests practically nothing in programs that prevent illness.
    "It seems to me if you can improve people's health status with the same resources, you've made tremendous contribution to public health," Wilson said.
    She also said she closely will monitor the Base Realignment and Closure process— or BRAC— to ensure that Kirtland Air Force Base remains safe. A commission charged with reviewing the bases will be appointed in March.
    Wilson led a charge in the last Congress to increase the size of the U.S. Army by about 39,000 troops. She said the increase is essential to provide some relief for overworked and overextended members of the National Guard and Reserve. She vowed to support legislative efforts to pay for that Army expansion.
    A mother of two small children, Wilson also said she will be focusing on education.
    She said she is increasingly concerned about a growing obesity epidemic among children, and wants to encourage more physical education programs for kids. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has tried to tackle the issue of childhood obesity— so far, without much luck— in the Senate.
    "Education will continue to be something I spend a lot of time on both legislatively and in the district," Wilson said. "It's something that is a personal passion."
    Wilson vowed to continue spending as much time as possible in her district. The congresswoman usually flies home on weekends, and said she much prefers New Mexico to Washington.
    "Maybe if I was from Detroit or something, Washington would be a step up," she said, laughing.
    She refuted the assertion that because she has now won four general elections, her congressional seat is "safe" for her re-election. She pointed out that as long as Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 1st Congressional District, she cannot afford to relax, even a little bit.
    "I don't ever think my seat is safe," Wilson said. "I always expect to have to work hard."