WASHINGTON — Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, faced a vexing first-year decision recently that had nothing to do with the debt ceiling or committee assignments.
Consider his circumstances: All week, he's on Capitol Hill. Weekends find him back in his San Joaquin Valley district. And though Denham began his congressional career with his family remaining behind on the ranch, the cross-country separation became untenable.
"My son came to me one night and said, 'You've missed a lot of my basketball games that are in the middle of the week, and I know if I'm back in D.C. you'll be able to make a lot more of them,'" Denham said.
But family unification was a complicated call, Denham acknowledged. Voters distrust politicians who go native. Opponents can exploit a family's residence as campaign fodder, as Republicans did last year against Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. Nonetheless, Denham earlier this year relocated wife, Sonia, and children, Samantha and Austin, to Northern Virginia.
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"I still need to go home at night and be a dad and be a husband, and that takes priority," Denham said.
Welcome to Jeff Denham's job in the 112th Congress, where fledgling careers turn on an endless succession of daily decisions. Some of Denham's freshman colleagues still stress their outside-the-Beltway bona fides by sleeping on their office couches and keeping their families home with the voters.
Denham, though, is no political novice, and the 44-year-old former state senator has shown some savvy during his first seven months in the House. He secured a subcommittee chairmanship, relatively rare for a freshman. He has used the panel adeptly. He's gotten some national attention, moved some legislation and won over some Democrats.
"I like him a lot," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.,'s liberal Democratic delegate. "I've found him to be bipartisan and neutral."
A fellow Californian, Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton, likewise characterized Denham as "easy to work with and personable." Denham talks with Cardoza regularly and has good relations with Rep. Devin Nunes, the Visalia Republican who had sharply criticized him during last year's GOP primary.
"Members of Congress often have different styles. Mine is to get something done," Denham said. "I'm looking to bipartisan solutions."
But not every freshman step has been well-placed, nor is every colleague a fan. Some of his fellow Republicans quietly grumbled about an early fundraiser he sponsored that seemed to backfire. Some Democrats doubt his flexibility.
"These issues are complex, and require solutions that often defy a simple political ideology," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove. "Thus far, Denham has displayed a rigid adherence to conservative ideology and sound bites."
Denham's votes do cast him as a strict conservative, though not strictly of the Tea Party variety.
He voted to end National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood funding and block collective bargaining by Transportation Security Administration workers. He is part of the extended Republican whip team that corrals votes for GOP leaders.
Now, several opportunities will test his ability to legislate in a bipartisan Congress.
Denham recently succeeded in passing a House amendment to temporarily block restoring salmon to the San Joaquin River. The amendment reflects serious concerns about irrigation supplies and the river's future. It was a snap getting it through the GOP-controlled House.
In the Senate, though, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein stands as a serious supporter of San Joaquin River restoration. The question, then, becomes: Does Denham cut a deal, or settle for a political statement?
"I think we can come to a compromise so we're having consistent water deliveries," Denham said.
Outside the San Joaquin Valley, another test looms under Denham's chairmanship of the cumbersomely titled House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.
The panel handles surplus public property, a topic Denham knows well from Sacramento. So far, he has held nine oversight hearings, more than other subcommittees.
Twice, Denham targeted Securities and Exchange Commission officials over a $550 million lease signed for building space the agency didn't need. Under questioning, SEC Chair Mary Schapiro acknowledged "substantial failures" and temporarily surrendered her agency's sole leasing authority.
The problems were discovered by an Office of Inspector General investigation that began before Denham took office. Still, by spotlighting the inspector general's work, Denham effectively reinforced the work of investigators.
"There are some people who hold oversight hearings for purely political purposes, and I haven't found him to do that at all," said an impressed Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the subcommittee's senior Democrat.
Denham now is negotiating with the Obama administration over a bill to establish a commission that would identify surplus federal properties for disposal. He says the bill could move quickly; if it does, it would be a substantial policy victory.
Politically, Denham sought to make an early fundraising splash, forming a special joint committee to raise money for fellow House Republicans.
Denham's committee, America's New Majority, sponsored a January performance by country singer LeAnn Rimes. All told, the committee took in $277,948 before it was terminated in April. Indian tribes with casinos, long a major backer of Denham, accounted for one-quarter of the total.
The committee distributed only about $17,000 to other House Republicans, recent federal records show, while more than $212,000 paid for the Rimes concert. Nonetheless, Denham defended the event he said served visiting constituents as well as colleagues.
"We made it a special time for all of those supporters," Denham said, adding that "the main goal is to make sure my freshman class is re-elected."
In other words, he's a team player; sometimes, literally so.
Several weeks ago, Denham was part of the Republican baseball team that played House Democrats in the annual congressional game. Facing a hard-throwing former college pitcher, Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Denham was one of 13 Republicans to strike out.
But here's the thing: He went down swinging, the only way to get a hit.
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