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Young Kim and Michelle Steel carve out different paths in Congress

Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel have rarely been mentioned individually since November, when the long-time Republican politicians and personal friends flipped their House districts to become two of the first three Korean American women elected to Congress.

The pair often travel together from Orange County to Washington, D.C.. They’ve also joined forces on several initiatives, teamed up to help Republicans reach Asian American voters, and mostly stuck with the GOP majority on legislation that’s come before them during their first three months in Congress.

But their togetherness only goes so far. In their brief stint in congress, Steel, R-Seal Beach, has voted with the GOP majority 100% of the time while Kim, R-La Habra, has voted with Democrats on several key issues.

Those votes might reflect differences in the districts the two women represent.

In Kim’s tri-county 39th, voters picked Joe Biden over Donald Trump by about 9 percentage points even as they sent Republican Kim to congress. In Steel’s coastal 48th, voters picked Biden over Trump by a much slimmer 1.5 percentage points.

Both districts are among just 16 nationally where voters split tickets, choosing a congressional representative and a presidential candidate of different parties.

“It’s the difference between someone who’s probably going to have to run very hard for reelection vs. someone who’s sitting in a safer district,” said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at USC.

“Steel is much more likely to get reelected by focusing on her conservative base. Kim has a more complicated calculus to navigate. She’s got much greater incentive to reach out to swing voters.”

But experts also say that despite their close ties, the two women don’t agree on every idea or policy.

“They’re very different people with very different approaches,” Schnur said. “There’s not much danger of one being mistaken for the other.”

Marcia Godwin, a politics professor at University of La Verne, said Steel and Kim almost feel like Republican counterparts to how Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer voted throughout their careers.

“You had one member that tended to be more to the center than the other, but there was no doubt that they were members of their particular party.”

Moderates on backing bills

Judging by the legislation they’ve backed, the watchdog website GovTrack ranks Kim as No. 1 and Steel as the No. 2 most moderate Republicans currently in the House. The ranking reflects how often the women have drawn Democratic support for their own legislation and how often they’ve cosponsored bills with bipartisan support and diverse authors.

For example, Kim’s bill to direct the Secretary of State to develop a strategy for letting Taiwan regain observer status in the World Health Organization has 26 Democratic cosponsors. She’s a lead cosponsor on Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia’s bill to extend until June 30 the Paycheck Protection Program, which passed the Senate on Thursday. Kim also cosponsored a bill by Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, to offer grants for mental health services need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steel’s first bill in Congress, which would prevent federal funds from being used to build California’s high-speed rail project, hasn’t attracted any bipartisan support. But her resolution to condemn recent hate crimes committed against Asian American and Pacific Islanders has drawn support from local Democrats including Reps. Porter, Lou Correa of Anaheim and Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano.

And both Kim and Steel cosponsored Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call to give congressional gold medals to the police who protected the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack.

“Our country is facing many challenges right now and we can only address them by working together,” Steel said.

Looking at this legislation, Godwin noted that Kim and Steel’s moderate GovTrack ranking is partly due to the types of issues that have come before them in the three months they’ve been in office, with a number of bills that have more easily drew bipartisan support.

Godwin believes some of that moderation can be attributed to the fact that, traditionally, data shows Republican women have tended to be more moderate than Republican men when it comes to issues such as gun control and family issues. Kim and Steel also both have previous experience representing diverse constituencies, which Godwin noted tends to make officeholders better at finding middle ground.

Split in voting records

Kim and Steel have voted with a majority of Republicans on most key issues they’ve faced during their brief time in office. Both voted against impeaching President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Both also voted against the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the Dream Act immigration reform plan.

But Kim has broken with Republicans on four major votes, according to records tracked by VoteView.com. That gives her a slightly lower ranking than the average House member of either party when it comes to party loyalty, with a score of 96% vs. the average score of 98%. Steel, according to VoteView, scores a perfect 100% for “party loyalty.”

Kim was one of only two California Republicans who voted Jan. 7 to uphold Pennsylvania’s electoral college results, confirming the President Joe Biden’s election.

Steel missed that vote because she contracted COVID-19, and never publicly commented on how she would have voted or why she didn’t vote by proxy.

On Feb. 2, Kim was one of only 11 Republicans who voted with Democrats to remove freshman GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Colorado from the Budget and Education and Labor committees in the wake of Greene embracing far-right conspiracy theories in numerous social media posts

“Rep. Greene’s comments and actions, from spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to questioning 9/11 and school shootings, are wrong in any context,” said Kim, who’s also a member of the bipartisan Problem Solver’s Caucus. “I cannot in good conscience support this rhetoric in any way.”

On March 17, Kim was among 29 Republicans who voted to reauthorize and expand the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 law that protects and provides resources for victims of domestic and sexual violence. And on March 19, Kim again joined 29 Republicans in voting to delay planned spending cuts to Medicare and other programs in light of the pandemic.

“I came to Congress to break through the partisan gridlock and be an independent voice for California’s 39th District,” Kim told the Register, when asked about crossing the aisle on these key votes.

Steel hasn’t commented publicly on why she voted with a majority of the GOP on these bills. She told the Register regarding her record so far: “I’m focused on what I said I’d do when I ran for Congress — fighting for taxpayers, helping businesses rebuild from pandemic lockdowns and supporting families who want to see schools reopen so students can succeed.”

But with the Violence Against Women Act, other Republicans who voted against it generally cited provisions that protect LGBTQ people and that prevent non-married partners convicted of abuse from buying guns. It was clear the bill would pass, but Steel joined a majority of Republicans in casting protest votes along ideological lines.

Calculated or conscience votes?

While ideology is certainly a factor, both Godwin and Schnur said the makeup of Kim and Steel’s districts no doubt weighs heavily on their choices in Congress.

In Kim’s 39th District, Democrats have a 4.5 percentage point advantage in voter registration, with 20,000 more voters than Republicans. For context, Democrats had just a 1 percentage point lead in CA-39 two years ago.

Kim hit the ground running and has been more assertive in staking out her claim as a more centrist Republican, Godwin said. An example, Godwin added, was Kim offering a public statement in advance of her decision to uphold electoral votes.

Steel’s 48th District still leans red by 5 percentage points, or nearly 22,000 voters. That’s down from a 10-point lead three years ago, but is still the reddest House district in Orange County.

Godwin sees Steel as so far having been more “tentative” about finding her lane, especially at the start of her term. Godwin said it’s tough to know how much Steel contracting COVID-19 the same week she took office is to blame, or the fact that Kim already was more familiar with the D.C. scene having worked for former Rep. Ed Royce for years.

“I just think Michelle Steel has a really much more deeply embedded history in California Republican party politics,” Godwin said, noting that Steel’s husband, Shawn Steel, is former head of the state GOP. “That tends to place her in a more… ideological perspective. So she potentially has a harder time navigating those hot-button issues of the Trump legacy, and staying in tune with the Republican base vs the district vs being effective.”

An example of how Steel is threading that needle came last week.

On March 18, Steel joined Kim in speaking on the House floor against growing anti-Asian American violence and harassment. That horrific trend may well be helping to elevate Steel and Kim’s profiles. Since they’re among just 17 Asian Americans in Congress, they are frequently being asked to comment on the issue in national media.

But the day after Steel’s speech on the House floor, she joined conservative GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in writing a letter asking the Olympic committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing. Though the move on the Olympics is aimed at China’s human rights violations, it also taps into some of the same anti-China sentiment — expressed by Trump and other Republicans — that experts suggest has driven the surge in hate acts against Asian Americans.

Kim, as a candidate, drew headlines for being one of a handful of Republicans to publicly criticize Trump for his reference to the pandemic as the “kung flu.” Steel initially wasn’t vocal about that language, but when pressed for a response she said such terms are “unhelpful and divisive.”

One advantage Steel has is that she’s facing a known challenger in 2022: Democrat Harley Rouda, who she defeated in November to flip CA-48 back to the GOP.

“She knows how to run against Rouda and she knows how to beat him,” Schnur said. “There’s no guarantee that will happen again next year, but at least there’s a playbook to use.”

Kim so far is facing Democrat Jay Chen of Hacienda Heights. Gil Cisneros, who Kim defeated in the fall, hasn’t yet said whether he’ll run next year.

An even bigger unknown is redistricting, with once-in-a-decade changes to district boundaries coming this fall. Because of pandemic-related delays, incumbents won’t know the political makeup of their districts until a few weeks before the filing deadline. So anything that incumbent does in office today to appeal to their current constituents might look different when a new set of voters cast primary ballots in June 2022.

“It’s hard to see those districts becoming more Republican-leaning,” Godwin said. “So, having a strong history as an incumbent outperforming the typical rookie member of Congress is important.”


Source: Orange County Register

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