What if ...?

 What if President Obama had gotten his speeches mixed up and mentioned in Los Banos Friday that he thought the top priorities for Congress should be “increasing the minimum wage and overhauling the immigration system” while telling the participants in a House Democrats retreat the day before: "California is our biggest economy. California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens (there) matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table," therefore we must spend whatever it takes to subsidize California agribusiness losses because there is almost no water to subsidize this year and America would collapse without Westlands Water District.  -- blj
Obama says immigration, minimum wage top agenda…Charles Babington
CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) — President Barack Obama said Friday that top priorities for Congress should be increasing the minimum wage and overhauling the immigration system, while acknowledging that election year politics could complicate the effort.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden delivered pep talks to a House Democratic retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, less than nine months before the lawmakers face re-election amid widespread voter disapproval of Congress.
The president and vice president called for sweeping changes to immigration laws, but Republican leaders have all but ruled out passage before the midterm election. Obama urged the Democratic crowd to keep working on the issue and insisted some Republicans want a deal.
"But they're worried, and they're scared about the political blowback. And look, everybody here is an elected official and we can all appreciate the maneuverings that take place, particularly in an election year," Obama said.
While Democrats are largely united on immigration, there are sharp divisions between the White House and some lawmakers over trade. Obama made no mention in his public remarks of his request for Congress to grant him fast-track authority to move trade agreements with Asia and Europe. Democratic leaders have staunchly opposed that step.
Biden did address the Democratic opposition during a private question-and-answer session with lawmakers. The vice president's office said Biden made the case for why trade negotiations serve U.S. economic and strategic interests. But a Democratic aide said Biden also acknowledged that lawmakers don't plan to act now to give Obama the leeway he's seeking.
The Democrats' hard line comes just days before trade issues dominate a North American Leaders Summit in Mexico, where Obama will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. A key topic will be progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, which are designed to expand trade among 12 countries in the Americas, the Pacific and Asia. The agreement has been seen as a vehicle to update the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Biden was more partisan than the president in his public remarks, suggesting the Republican Party is too fractured to be effective.
He urged the Democrats not to focus "on the few things we do have problems with" and argued that Americans back them on issues including raising the minimum wage, expanding early childhood education, immigration reform, gay marriage and even health care.
"Let's go out and make every single effort not just to defend but to aggressively push our agenda," Biden said. "They are with us."
And for any lawmaker who might not be feeling so confident, Biden said, "I can imagine our prospects being viewed by the press and everyone else as being a whole hell of a lot brighter by the time we turn to September than now."
The president also thanked lawmakers for banding together to increase the government's debt with no strings attached in legislation that Congress approved this week and for standing behind his health care law through its troubled rollout.
"I just want to say thank you for all of you hanging in there tough on an issue that I think 10 years from now, five years from now, we're going to look back and say this was a monumental achievement that could not have happened had it not been for this caucus," Obama said.
Obama's and Biden's remarks came in brief appearances before Democrats before reporters were ushered out of the room as they took questions. The large ballroom was not full, with some empty tables, as some lawmakers apparently skipped the retreat because of the East Coast snowstorm.
Merced Sun-Star
President Obama checks out Del Bosque farm near Los Banos…Thaddeus Miller and Corey Pride
LOS BANOS — President Barack Obama’s visit to the West Side was met with both excitement and skepticism from officials and residents here on Friday.
News had spread that the president would visit the farm of Joe Del Bosque, which straddles Merced and Fresno counties, on Friday afternoon. During his visit, the president also trumpeted his administration’s efforts to bring relief for the region’s most severe drought in 40 years.
Standing outside Los Banos Drugs around lunchtime, Debra Oller of Los Banos said she was excited to hear the president would make a stop on the West Side. She lives across the street from an almond orchard and worries about the health of the agriculture industry and farmworkers. Oller hoped the president’s visit would bring some relief to the area’s economy, which relies heavily on the farmers and ranchers.
“We’re a small town and it’s good that Washington (D.C.) sees this little town,” the 60-year-old said. “I’m optimistic.”
Air Force One touched down at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, and Obama participated in a roundtable discussion with community leaders at San Luis Water Facility in Firebaugh before visiting the Los Banos farm on Eagle Field Road.
Another resident, Penny Glick, said she was also hopeful the president will do something for area farmers. When farmers are hurting in Los Banos, she said, many others will feel the pain as well. The 62-year-old owns The Country Duck, a shop that sells home decor.
“If they don’t have the money, they aren’t coming in here,” she said, while standing in her shop on Main Street.
She saw Facebook posts about the president’s visit, she said, and most had a negative tone. “It’s a shame that more people aren’t taking pride that a president is coming,” she said.
California has had three dry years in a row, and Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last month. Water suppliers said they would wait to hear the president talk about ways to fix the state’s water shortage.
Chase Hurley, general manager of the San Luis Canal Co., said he hoped the president would address federal regulations that sometimes impede water circulation. “I think what the local folks are looking for is what he can do to help move water around the state,” he said.
Central California Irrigation District General Manager Chris White said landowners outside of his district have no water allocation, and inside the district the allocation is 50 percent.
“That’s the lowest it’s ever been,” White said. “I do think the visit by the president highlights the dire drought. The local economy is dependent on the farmers.”
White said he hopes Obama, after seeing the conditions here, will develop an urgency to press for Congress to work together on drought solutions.
Many ranchers and farmers have begun pumping well water sooner than usual.
Los Banos Councilman Scott Silveira, who operates a dairy, said he is cautiously optimistic about relief being delivered to farmers. “I’m optimistic, but I’m not holding my breath,” he said. “We’re in a real drought now.”
Silveira said farmers and dairymen are making tough decisions to conserve water. “We’ve become more and more efficient at what we do. At this point guys are talking about how much acreage they’re not going to farm,” he said. “I’m concerned about water for my cows, which feed us, which feeds the country, really.”
Less optimistic was grower Corky Sherwood, 67, who buys and sells grain. He called the president’s visit “symbolism over substance.”
Sherwood said three years ago was wet enough to last through today, but there was not enough space for the water. He also lamented the roughly 800,000 acre-feet that’s left in the Sacramento River yearly to maintain flows for the delta smelt and wildlife.
“They’re telling us to conserve water?” he said. “Why don’t you build more storage? We’re not short of water in California, we’re short of water storage.”
As the president’s arrival drew near, dozens of onlookers gathered in their cars near the farm south of Los Banos. Some had found the location because of the police blocking the roads.
Sharon Coelho, however, said she went looking for the site early in the day and called farmer friends to get tips on how to find the president. The 51-year-old waited near the Eagle Field Road site for more than three hours hoping that she would catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would have lost my home,” she said. “I want to see him so bad.”
Coelho said her Los Banos home’s mortgage was upside down, and she was able to hold onto it after the president announced the Home Affordable Modification Program, a federal program that helps lower mortgage payments.
She was on the side of the road when the presidential motorcade pulled into the farm, which grows cantaloupe, asparagus and other foods, Friday afternoon.
Obama brought with him new assistance for the drought-stricken area. By directing Agriculture Department staff to make livestock assistance a “top priority,” officials say they expect to provide California producers an estimated $100 million for 2014 losses
Conservation assistance includes an estimated $5 million in new aid for California, and an additional $5 million in emergency watershed protection grants and $3 million in water grants for rural communities.and up to $50 million for losses in previous years.
“While drought in regions outside the West is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy,” Obama said during remarks at the Del Bosque farm. “California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table.”
Interior Department officials are being directed to operate federal water projects with “flexibility” to maximize water deliveries, and federal agencies are being directed to conserve more aggressively.
Much of the aid comes from existing federal programs but is being provided with what administration officials describe as extra dispatch. This includes the intention to establish 600 additional summer feeding sites in the drought-affected region, under the Agriculture Department.
Feeding programs were widely used by West Side farmworkers beginning in 2008. About 200,000 people were affected when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put in place policies to restrict the water pumped into Central Valley farmland. The policies protected the endangered delta smelt, but made work scarce for migrant farmworkers.
Obama said changing temperatures influence drought in at least three ways: more rain falls in extreme downpours so more water is lost to runoff than captured; more precipitation in the mountains falls as rain rather than snow, so rivers run dry earlier in the year; and soil and reservoirs lose more water to evaporation year-round.
“The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come,” he said. “So we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for; we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure, to start having new plans, to recalibrate the baseline that we’re working off of.”
Obama vows to give attention to drought in Valley visit…John Ellis.The Fresno Bee. Bee staff writers Diana Aguilera, Marc Benjamin, Carmen George, George Hostetter and Tim Sheehan contributed to this report.
President Barack Obama took a whirlwind tour of the central San Joaquin Valley's drought-damaged farm country Friday, getting a look at fallowed dirt and hosting a round-table discussion with farmers, industry representatives, environmentalists and politicians.
On his first-ever trip to the Fresno area, the president spent barely three hours in the region before flying on to Southern California, where he met with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage.
Taking a seat at a horseshoe table inside a cavernous metal San Luis Water District maintenance building on the west side of Fresno County, Obama tried to assure round-table participants that California's importance as a farm producer makes the state's water problems a national concern.
"I wanted to come here to listen," the president said during brief opening remarks before the event was closed to reporters. "We are going to stay on top of this because it has national implications."
The president said he's been well-warned about the history of water politics in California -- politics he said he did not want to get mired in "because I want to get out alive on Valentine's Day."
Turning serious, the president added that longer-term solutions to water would be required.
"Water has been seen as a zero-sum game: agriculture against urban, north against south," Obama said. "We're going to have to figure out how to play a different game. We can't afford years of litigation and no real action."
In remarks later in the afternoon, the president expanded on that theme, saying climate change would make weather events like drought and downpours more extreme. That, he said, will require rethinking how to meet the needs of all water users -- farmers, city residents, industry and the environment, and not just in California.
"California is our biggest economy. California is our biggest agricultural producer," the president said, "so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table."
About 25 people were invited to the discussion. Participants included a range of people -- from U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rep. Jim Costa to United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham, Nisei Farmers League CEO Manuel Cunha and Andy Souza, CEO of Fresno-based Community Food Bank.
California is in its third dry year, and this winter so far is one of the driest on record. Both state and federal water projects have told farmers to expect no water this year.
Prior to the President Obama's arrival, the White House announced several steps that he will take to deal with the drought.
The drought assistance includes speedier livestock disaster assistance for California producers, provided under a newly signed farm bill, as well as targeted conservation assistance, watershed protection funds, additional summer feeding programs and emergency community water grants.
By directing Agriculture Department staff to make the livestock assistance a "top priority," officials say they expect to provide California producers an estimated $100 million for 2014 losses and up to $50 million for losses in previous years.
Following the meeting, Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque and his wife Maria gave the president, dressed in slacks and rolled-up shirt sleeves, a tour of a field that will lay fallow because he doesn't have enough water to grow a crop. Gov. Jerry Brown, who joined the president on the tour, last month announced a statewide drought emergency.
Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based Grape and Tree Fruit League, was among those who met with the president during the round table discussion.
Bedwell said President Obama and Vilsack were clear that they were in the Valley to supply immediate relief. But the conversation also turned to finding long-term solutions including water storage and conveyance.
"The message we wanted to convey is that this is an issue that is impacting not just one region, but the whole state and that there needs to be a cooperative effort to help solve this issue," Bedwell said.
But three of Valley's Republican congressmen -- Reps. Devin Nunes of Tulare, David Valadao of Hanford and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, none of whom were invited to join the president for any part of his stop -- were far more critical of the president's comments.
Valadao said the president "chose handouts and a climate lecture over real solutions."
Nunes was even more unsparing: "To blame the California water crisis on global warming is ludicrous. The state has an incredible irrigation system designed to supply water through five years of drought. But as a result of excessive regulations and lawsuits by environmental extremists, we cannot fully use this system, and billions of gallons of water have been flushed into the ocean that could have supplied drought-stricken farmers and communities."
The three Republicans proposed legislation that would authorize dam construction, repeal the ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, authorize raising Shasta Dam and lengthen federal irrigation contracts to 40 years. The bill already has passed the House, but faces long odds in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
California's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- along with Oregon's two Democratic senators -- introduced their own drought legislation.
Their proposal would offer $300 million in drought aid, attempt to give more water to users in part by requiring flexibility in how federal officials manage pumping through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, allow water districts to delay their federal contract payments and speed up federal decision-making on water supply projects.
During comments at the Del Bosque property, Obama said his administration's actions are similar to the Feinstein-Boxer legislation.
"And I hope that Congress considers the legislation that they have crafted soon," he said.
Feinstein and Boxer, along with Costa, joined the president on his flight to California and his tour of the Valley.
After the president left Fresno, Costa told reporters he was grateful Obama had come to "ground zero" to see the devastating effects of the drought, and the potential disaster ahead if the rains continue to stay away.
"I think this drought could get more difficult before it gets better," Costa said.
Improving the state's water storage is pivotal to a long-term solution, he said. This would help smooth consumption from wet to dry years. The raising of existing dams or the construction of new dams must be on the table, he said. The effort must be bipartisan.
But if storage proponents can't hammer out a compromise now, when water supplies are critical, the opportunity could be lost if the rains return next year, he said.
Although President Obama scheduled no public events, his landing aboard Air Force One drew large crowds to Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
At least 500 people gathered Friday afternoon outside the airport to catch a glimpse of the special jetliner. Hundreds parked along the west side of the airport on Chestnut Avenue, between Dakota and Shields avenues.
Some Fresno groups also showed up, including Peace Fresno and Central Valley Tea Party.
The president's plane landed at Fresno Yosemite International Airport about 2:40 p.m.
The president and his entourage were greeted at the bottom of the stairway by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who tried to make the most of her three minutes with Obama.
Swearengin had said earlier this week that she wanted just five minutes with the president to make her case for more federal help in fighting poverty and unemployment in Fresno. The absence of anyone else in the receiving line enabled her to get a few uninterrupted minutes before the president made his way to Marine One for the helicopter ride to the west side.
Obama waved to the cameras but did not stop to take questions. Swearengin was surrounded by reporters once Obama was gone.
The drought "clearly is an issue of national significance. I welcomed him and thanked him for his attention to this issue," Swearengin said.
"But I also made sure to point out that we have long-standing issues of poverty and unemployment in the city of Fresno even when we have plenty of water. The drought makes everything worse. But we also want to deal with long-standing chronic issues that face us in the Valley."
Obama "committed to helping us," Swearengin said. "He certainly wants to be part of the solution here in Fresno. I asked for help from his cabinet secretaries. I asked him to say yes to Fresno."
Who met with the president?
A number of Valley farm and water district leaders met with President Barack Obama on Friday in a round-table discussion of the drought and its impacts. Here is the list of participants:
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Michael Connor, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
California Gov. Jerry Brown
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer
Joe and Maria Gloria Del Bosque, owners of Empresas Del Bosque Inc.
Nancy McFadden, executive secretary for Gov. Brown
Ann Notthoff, Natural Resource Defense Council California director
Arturo Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president
Gabriel Agustin, farmworker
Mario Santoyo, California Latino Water Coalition
Martin McIntyre, San Luis Water District
Steve Chedester, Exchange Contractors
Ronald Jacobsma, Friant Water Users 
Obama promises money for drought relief; now the hard part begins…Michael Doyle, McClatchy Washington Bureau… Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed
WASHINGTON — The easiest part of the Obama administration’s response to the California drought is now over.
The White House has provided money, commitments and a presidential visit. But the money is limited, the president is moving on and the commitments will soon be tested on Capitol Hill and deep within the federal bureaucracies.
“How serious are they?” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., asked in an interview Friday. “I don’t think the White House has really been engaged with this so far.”
Abiding by Politics 101, President Barack Obama brought to the San Joaquin Valley on Friday what pros call “deliverables.” He announced new aid, including conservation grants, livestock producer assistance and funds for water-short rural communities. He pledged flexibility in federal water management decisions to maximize deliveries to farmers. He put his prestige on the line, a definite signal to administration underlings.
The coming weeks and months will test the administration’s staying power on multiple California drought fronts. These include:
_ Legislation. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a California water bill that authorizes new dams, lengthens irrigation contracts and repeals a San Joaquin River restoration program and replaces it with something less ambitious. California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have authored a competing bill. It’s unclear what role the administration will play in guiding a compromise.
_ Regulation. Obama’s demand that Interior Department water managers use flexibility in operating the vast Central Valley Project leaves unanswered what this means for water deliveries. Environmental activists fear the president’s commitment will pressure agency scientists and regulators to shortchange species and habitat protection. Farmers fear the promised flexibility will turn to mush.
_ Administration. The new Agriculture Department aid includes an estimated $100 million for livestock producers, with the money provided from a newly signed farm bill. Under the last farm bill, officials took more than a year to get livestock aid into the hands of needy ranchers. Officials insist they will now cut that time by 80 percent, an efficiency goal that will test agency managers.
Getting large bureaucracies to move nimbly could prove the first test.
“Historically, this has taken months and months and months to do,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged, citing past livestock aid programs.
This time, Vilsack pledged the signup for livestock producer assistance will start in April. Speed, though, could also render the agency vulnerable. A prior drought-related livestock aid program in the Midwest was “left open to waste (and) misuse,” the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General reported in 2005.
Simply understanding California’s complicated water scene will be another challenge. In a conference call with reporters Thursday, both Vilsack and White House science adviser John Holdren said they were unfamiliar with California’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The proposed $25 billion program has long been at the center of debate over the state’s water future.
One federal official intimately familiar with the controversial proposal, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor, is still awaiting Senate confirmation as deputy interior secretary. Trained as both an engineer and as an attorney, Connor had an uneventful hearing last September. But these days, Senate politics entangle even seemingly straightforward confirmations.
Once confirmed, Connor could be crucial in handling California water, a responsibility often handled by past deputy secretaries. Connor, and not Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, accompanied Obama on the San Joaquin Valley visit Friday.
Lower level Interior Department officials could feel the presidential heat. In a press briefing, the White House said officials will “adjust and speed changes to key water projects, and give water contractors flexibility to meet their obligations, while maintaining important environmental safeguards.” Farmers like the sound of this, but its real-world consequences remain opaque and potentially controversial.
“You have people in the valley who do not have entitlements to water who are screaming they want more water. They are screaming that federal scientists should be muzzled,” said environmentalist Patricia Schifferle, owner of Pacific Advocates. “The question is, once these scientists are muzzled, how does that solve the drought problem?”
Whichever way they go, some of the key agency decisions will be highly technical and often nuanced, making them meaningful primarily to a select audience. Officials, for instance, must decide pumping levels down to the cubic-feet-per-second for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, with the respective health of the threatened delta smelt and water-starved Valley farms hanging in the balance.
Other than opposing the California water bill authored by GOP lawmakers, the administration has not yet played an obvious role in crafting legislation. Sometimes it stays deferential. In describing the long-delayed farm bill, the Politico newspaper characterized the president, and by extension, his team, as “remarkably detached, almost a bit player.”
On Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted the administration is “actively engaged” in the water legislation effort
“We look forward to continuing to work with the bill’s sponsors and other members of Congress as the process moves forward,” he said.
At the same time, forgoing a bipartisan opportunity, Obama surrounded himself strictly with congressional Democrats Friday. The Democrats-only staging, which included selecting a farm to visit that was located in the district of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., did little to ease diplomatic relations with House GOP leaders.
“It remains to be seen if our Senate colleagues are willing to cross the aisle and acknowledge that a their-way-or-the-highway position is not feasible,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said, in a statement...