Duncan Hunter is San Diego’s Republican voice in Congress.
As such, his presence Tuesday at a panel discussion with his Democratic colleagues in the San Diego delegation was not only unmistakable but shaped the dynamic of the event.
Had he not been there, the annual San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Congressional Luncheon would have featured a lot of agreement with some polite, nuanced differences among the other members: Susan Davis, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas of San Diego and Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano.
Instead, Hunter and the four were animated and at times contentious as they disagreed on a number of issues, including immigration, environmental protection, President Donald Trump, the Mueller report and impeachment.
What didn’t come up were Hunter’s legal and political problems. Hunter is awaiting trial in September on federal charges that he and his wife, Margaret, allegedly stole $250,000 in campaign funds. They have pleaded not guilty. He’s also facing a rematch next year against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who came close to upsetting Hunter last year and so far is leading the incumbent in fundraising.
Hunter didn’t make the luncheon last year, and the difference in tone was palpable.
That gathering, which included then-Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, focused more on how the delegation worked together on regional concerns, such as funding improvements in efficiency and security at the U.S. ports of entry along the border with Mexico. Issa, who decided not to run for re-election, was forthright but diplomatic on the thornier national issues, including Trump’s policies.
Hunter was his typical blunt self during Tuesday’s discussion at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel. He believes in Trump and the proposed extended border wall, and he doesn’t pussyfoot around about it.
“The economy is rocking and rolling,” he said, explaining why he supports Trump for re-election, as he did his election in 2016. “I don’t particularly care how people articulate, just that they get the job done.”
Levin, who replaced Issa, said he hadn’t decided which Democratic presidential candidate to back, but said he would support one who can bring “honesty and integrity back to the Oval Office.” He added that he looked forward to the day when he could watch the president of the United States on television with his two children and “turn up the TV, not hit the mute button.”
Amy Brown, the chamber’s lobbyist in Sacramento who moderated the panel discussion, asked whether there was a crisis at the border.
“We certainly don’t have a crisis when it comes to people coming across the border,” said Vargas, whose district runs along the border. He noted that illegal crossings are lower than they were many years ago. He added that “we do have a crisis of sewage,” a reference to the regular wastewater spills from Tijuana that pollute the border areas and the ocean off Imperial Beach.
“There is a national security crisis on the border,” countered Hunter. He noted that crossings are spiking and that border enforcement agencies are overwhelmed. He said detained immigrants are being released, particularly in other regions, because facilities are full. “. . . The reason we don’t have that in San Diego is because we have a fence.”
None of the members was optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform could be achieved this year.
“This is the toughest issue for bipartisanship right now,” Peters said, blaming in part Trump’s immigration policies.
Said Hunter: “We’re all pro-immigration. The issue is illegal immigration.” He added that without agreement on illegal immigration, border security (meaning: the wall) and visa reforms, no broad deal could be reached with Republicans.
Davis said she actually agreed with a “tiny piece” of what Hunter said, though didn’t specify what that was. But she said there was a larger concern blocking progress.
When you scapegoat immigrants and you set up this polarizing situation that people can’t distinguish between illegal and legal immigration. . . the scapegoating takes over the reality,” she said.
Turning to the environment, Hunter was critical of the Green New Deal, a wide-ranging resolution pushed by some Democrats that calls for a stimulus program to wipe out greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and create jobs to help do it. He said it would require government prescriptions that would hurt private innovation, while doing away with many things Americans rely on.
Peters criticized the Republican Party for making bogus claims that the Green New Deal means “no cows, no cars, no planes.” Nevertheless, he reiterated that he has not signed on to the proposal but instead has offered a “climate playbook” of dozens of more concrete environmental measures already pending in Congress.
Hunter and the Democrats sharply disagreed on the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated what involvement Trump and his allies may have had in Russian interference in the 2016 election. The report did not find enough evidence to establish there was a conspiracy and did not conclude whether obstruction of justice occurred.
“I’m glad it’s over,” Hunter said, noting that past congressional committees under Republican control also investigated the matter. “. . . There’s got to be an end state to it and I hope this is it.”
Vargas said the report laid out “impeachable offenses” and urged Democrats to examine them, even though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others caution that impeachment may not be a politically wise move given that the Republican-controlled Senate would never vote to convict Trump.
“There’s a difference between the politics and our constitutional responsibility,” he said.
The other three Democrats didn’t go that far, but said Congress needs to conduct its own investigation. Peters criticized Hunter and other Republicans for suggesting the report amounts to nothing and it’s time to move on.
“No American who reads it is going to think that,” he said.
At one point in that heated debate, Hunter struggled to take the floor. “There’s four of you and just one of me. You’ve had a lot of time,” he said.
The discussions were tough, but respectful, and never became personal.
Said Vargas: “It’s great to have you here, Duncan.”
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