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He’s been ruffling feathers among Democrats and liberals for his hard-line talk about unaccompanied minors from Central America who have been crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally by the tens of thousands in the last year alone.
And then there is his blistering attack on President Obama, and his choice of modifiers to describe the commander-in-chief – “bizarre,” “aloof,” “detached.”
This is not a Republican foe of Obama. It’s a fellow Democrat – U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar.
The Texas lawmaker has been among the most high-profile critics of Obama and his handling of the influx on the border, which has seen a meteoric rise in illegal crossings by Central Americans arriving at the Rio Grande Valley in the Lone Star State. The most charged aspect of the influx is the roughly 60,000 unaccompanied minors, and what to do about them.
Cuellar and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, joined forces to develop a bill that would speed up the processing and deportation of the children.
Opponents of the bill, including Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, say that many of the children are fleeing poverty and violence, and that traumatized kids should not be rushed through a complicated immigration system with an ultimate goal of kicking them out of the United States.
“Henry Cuellar and I are good friends, but on this one, we part ways,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is one of the leading voices in Congress in support of providing undocumented immigrants with a way to legalize their status. “This is wrong. If you expedite process, it guarantees that there will be little girls and little boys, and older children, who will no longer see a social worker, see a judge. Instead they’d be interviewed by a Border Patrol agent, and it’s not their job to know and understand the nuances of [political] asylum laws.”
“We should err on the side of making sure that an 8-year-old girl is never handed back to a drug trafficker or those who would exploit that child’s body.”
Cuellar, who could not be reached for comment for this story, took aim at Obama when the president visited Texas recently and did not go to the border, despite many appeals by Texas lawmakers – mainly Republicans -- for him to do so.
“He'll be 500 miles from Dallas and, in fact, he'll be 242 miles from Austin, Texas, at the other fundraising he'll be having," Cuellar told MSNBC. "I hate to use the word 'bizarre,' but under the circumstances - when he is shown playing pool in Colorado, drinking a beer, and he can't even go 242 miles to the Texas border?"
"He either can roll up his sleeves and go down to the border, or he can just look aloof and detached and not go to the border," he said.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, of which Cuellar is a member and which includes only Democrats, held a news conference to distance themselves from the five-term lawmaker.
“Henry Cuellar does not represent the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” said CHC Chairman Ruben Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat. “He’s a Blue Dog; he comes to the meetings once in a long time.”
But some have lauded him for taking bold stances – even ones that infuriate his own political party.
“He’s built up a lot of credibility and admiration in the entire Texas delegation, particularly on my side,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, a Republican who leads the Homeland Security Committee, told the Dallas Morning News. “We know he’s not trying to pull a fast one to score political points.”
Cuellar has scoffed at his critics and has not backed down.
“I find it interesting that everybody says, ‘Be bipartisan.’ But when you actually do something bipartisan, some people criticize that,” Cuellar said told the Morning News. “I do the talk, and I do the walk.”
Political experts say Cuellar can afford to be the provocateur he has been.
Taking risks and doing what is unpopular among his Democratic colleagues is how he got to Congress in the first place.
Much to the chagrin of some Democratic leaders, Cuellar ran against an incumbent from his own party when he vied for a House seat.
He also supported President George W. Bush, who famously cupped Cuellar’s face after a State of the Union speech in 2006. Cuellar’s critics noted how the congressman had a glowing expression as the president touched his face.
“He’s one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, Cuellar’s district starts right on the border,” said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Texas. “They’re Hispanic counties. Republicans have significant problems attracting Hispanic votes."
“The district is two thirds Hispanic, it is safe Democratic district," Jillson said, "and he’s held it for about a decade. It gives him a lot of flexibility about how he conducts himself in office."