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July 31, 2014

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Shelley Berkley: Doing it her way

Congresswoman Shelley Berkley pulls her Cadillac into a Las Vegas gas station and immediately feels her constituents' pain, about $60 worth by the time she's done filling the tank.

Residents can't stomach the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline any better than she can. She winces as the nation depends on foreign oil from a region hostile to her beloved Israel while the state's vast solar and geothermal energy sources go untapped.

So she introduced sweeping legislation to turn the nation's energy source green.

And it will probably never become law.

Such is the plight of a midlevel, midcareer member of Congress such as Berkley. Even though Democrats control Congress for the first time since she came to Washington eight years ago, Berkley is not likely to see her name on marquee legislation or change Washington the way Mr. Smith did.

For a lawmaker who embodies Vegas with glittery pizzazz — which last week included hot pink sunglasses to match a Dana Buchman blazer to match fuchsia manicured nails — Berkley's power and prestige are more subtle statements.

In the House, with its 435 members, power comes in different forms. There are the obvious faces of the party, the leaders and committee chairs who have risen through seniority and skill. Even young stars enjoy a bit of clout simply by their newness.

Then there are lawmakers such as Berkley, who congressional scholar Norman Ornstein said could simply ride out a career as a backbencher but instead has learned to collect her strength in less obvious ways.

Those who know her say she has emerged as the go-to expert on gambling, nuclear waste and Middle Eastern affairs, someone colleagues and lobbyists can trust for information.

Perhaps even more valuable, she has carved a niche with her ability to nudge and noodle her peers to deliver votes, all the while willing to cede the limelight.

"There are a lot of different ways of approaching a career and breaking out of the pack when you're in these middle stages; she's done it well," Ornstein said.

"You can go a long way on interpersonal skills, especially if you're willing to use them to build coalitions to help others," he said. "If you do so, you're going to build up chit. When you need help, you're much more able to get it."

That, he said, has helped make Berkley "very much a player."

Her strength plays out behind the scenes in ways few back home will ever know.

"There are some colleagues you see on C-SPAN nonstop," said Rep. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "They may be some of the least respected members of Congress. Shelley is not one of those."

But the chairman, who tapped Berkley to lead a congressional delegation to Europe later this month, said the reputation she has gained makes her better known among her colleagues than "the majority of the women in the U.S. Senate."

As the congresswoman lays out her goals for the session, she plans to have a hand in the big-ticket issues of the day: revamping Medicare, providing health care for the uninsured, improving education, mending Social Security — many of the campaign themes she shared with Democrats nationally in 2006.

As always, she will continue working to block nuclear waste from being shipped to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and will use her new position on the powerful Ways and Means tax-writing committee to protect the state's No. 1 industry, the casinos on the Strip.

But not many of those topics are found in the 11 bills Berkley has offered this session. The bills include meager feel-good legislation such as one to support the contributions of suffragists.

Others, like her energy bill and legislation to boost veterans benefits, have strengths, but with 131 other energy bills vying for attention, hers will likely be folded into broader legislation. Her FREE Act — Freedom through Renewable Energy Expansion — got a five-minute hearing this month and may never be heard from again.

But none of that matters. Berkley has carved a niche for herself as a valued player on the Democratic team. She goes on offense to round up votes as part of the House whip operation on key issues. Then she reaps the rewards when she switches to defense to block nuclear waste or gambling taxes in Nevada.

She is confident her hand will be seen in key Democratic legislation, including the energy bill.

"You're not going to see in the final bill that comes out, it's not going to be in neon 'the Shelley Berkley FREE Act,' " she said in her office, where a life-size cutout of Liberace in patriotic short-shorts towers over her desk.

"I have no expectation that's going to happen," she said. "But I have an expectation that many of the sections of my legislation are going to be in the final legislation."

"I'm OK with that," she added. "I'm going to have the satisfaction of knowing I did a job well and succeeded. There will be plenty of credit to go around."

Berkley has also ingratiated herself with party leadership, despite her old rift with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates. Last election cycle alone, she turned over more than $500,000 to the House's Democratic fundraising arm, the Nevada state party and individual candidates, including North Carolina's Heath Shuler, a former Washington Redskins quarterback whose victory helped Democrats win a majority in November.

Berkley, the former student body president-turned-cocktail-waitress-turned-lawyer, understands the Washington rule of relationships, and the power of connecting with people to form lasting bonds.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, says Berkley was the one who took her aside after an NCAA betting ban hearing some years ago and got her to think differently about her opposition to gaming.

"I have been a changed mind on the Judiciary Committee," Jackson Lee said. "She really changed a lot of minds."

Lantos said Berkley gathers support in the most charming ways, loading colleagues up with her best brainy arguments, then giving them a big kiss and a hug if they decline, shrugging, "I'll get you next time."

After a career with Democrats in the minority, Berkley has not had to withstand the scrutiny that comes with being the party in power.

Will Berkley be able to meet the expectations voters have for Democrats to change Washington? Will her constituents be satisfied with a behind-the-scenes lawmaker or desire a more obvious leader?

When Berkley and Nevada Republican Rep. Jon Porter landed coveted seats on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, there were plenty of comments about why it took her five terms to accomplish what he did in three. (Others say Porter got a break when half the Republicans on the committee failed to win reelection, and his leadership tossed him a perk to secure his standing in 2008.)

Even more, as Las Vegas continues to grow and change, will her close ties to the industries people love to hate — gambling and mining — become less popular if residents seriously rally for gaming taxes or stricter environmental controls?

Stepping off the House elevator in her Stuart Weitzman pumps and matching bag, Berkley's battle with osteoporosis shows in her hunched posture as she moves to the House floor.

She wishes she were here more, making speeches and playing a dramatic role in shaping national policy. But the day is short and there is other work to do.

Today she is introducing gambling legislation, a bill to study whether online gaming, which was outlawed under the Republican-led Congress last year, could be regulated and legalized.

Berkley submits the bill with 61 co-sponsors who signed on the day before when, "like Nirvana," back-to-back votes gave her a captive audience. On her list of co-sponsors: no less than three committee chairmen and the House whip.

She has no idea when the bill will get attention, but she'll know the timing is right when she sees it.

"There's rhythm, there's a feeling where things are going," she said. "That's what's going to make you effective or not. You're either sensitive to the vibrations or you're banging your head up against the wall."

When that time comes, you can bet she'll be stopping old friends in the halls for a friendly little chat.

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