By SUZANNE GAMBOA
Just in time for a return to his conservative-leaning district, Rep. Nick Lampson joined Republicans trying to force a vote on a get-tough immigration bill. He also won the label of House centrist in a Capitol Hill news magazine.
Those two things could help the freshman Democrat blunt GOP efforts to reclaim District 22, a seat previously held by former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
"If I can be the most moderate person in the House of Representatives, that's where I want to be," said Lampson, who helped create the Center Aisle Caucus, a group of moderates from both parties.
This week, Lampson backed a Republican-led movement to force a vote on an immigration bill written by Democrats, a move that could create election year political fodder.
Also this week, Lampson was ranked by National Journal, a Capitol Hill news magazine, as one of the most moderate freshman House members based on 107 key house votes. According to the magazine, 227 House members are more liberal than him and 202 are more conservative.
With Congress out the next two weeks for spring/Easter break, members will be back in their districts. Lampson and others facing competitive, swing district races can expect foes to verbally pummel them on a variety of topics, including immigration.
Shelley Sekula Gibbs, a former Houston council member and dermatologist, and Pete Olson, a former Cornyn Senate aide, are in an April 8 runoff in District 22. The winner will challenge Lampson, whom the White House has designated as the GOP's top target in this year's congressional elections.
The economy has overtaken immigration as a top concern of voters in the presidential race. But it is expected be a factor in congressional races as the parties square off for power in the House and Senate.
Lampson said he considers the immigration bill he's signed onto "a logical first step in solving our illegal immigration problem."
The bill, known as the SAVE Act, would require employers to make sure their workers are in the U.S. legally; add 8,000 more Border Patrol agents to the 18,000 to be hired by the end of this year; provide agents with more equipment; add jails for detained immigrants and other measures.
An estimated 150,000 people, or about 18.5 percent of residents in Lampson's district are foreign born, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Most are originally from India, followed by China, Mexico and Vietnam.
Cecilia Munoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza, said the bill's enforcement strategy is designed to round up and deport as many people as possible.
"Politically, it is a terrible message for a legislator of any party to be sending to what is a really angry Latino community," Munoz said. She added that Latino turnout is up at the polls this year.
Sekula Gibbs said Lampson was trying to cloud his vote on a procedural motion last year that sought to deny illegal immigrants benefits from a farm spending bill.
Most Democrats opposed the change, saying illegal immigrants were already ineligible for programs funded by the bill and the Republican proposal was an attempt to trap swing district Democrats. Lampson and several other Democrats initially sided with Republicans on the measure, then switched their votes when it appeared the motion might pass.
"Nick Lampson is attempting to reinvent himself since he was the congressman from Beaumont," Sekula Gibbs said. "This is Texas, the people of this district in Texas 22 are very concerned about illegal immigration. They want their country back. They want a secure border and they want our immigration laws enforced."
Olson did not respond to a request to his campaign for comment.
In Washington, Lampson's efforts weren't shielding him from criticism. Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Lampson has cast votes that show he is a "tax-and-spend liberal at heart, no matter what district in Congress he is representing."
Lampson had represented the 9th congressional district but lost his 2004 re-election bid after his district was redrawn.