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December 19, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Why Dean Heller’s hard line on immigrants might sting later

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ALEX BRANDON / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., right, stands with Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., center, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., Wednesday in Washington. Heller has aligned with Wilson in seeking assurances that illegal immigrants would be blocked from coverage under government-sponsored health care.

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The Republican Party has been told again and again that it must tone down its rhetoric against illegal immigrants if it has any hope of keeping Hispanic voters who were once gravitating to the party from moving further toward Democrats.

Especially in Western states, including Nevada, with its growing Hispanic population, a measure of moderation would do the party some good.

But that has not stopped Republican Rep. Dean Heller from allying himself on immigration with the Joe Wilson wing of the party. Wilson is the Republican from South Carolina who shouted “You lie!” when President Barack Obama told Congress that health care reform would not cover illegal immigrants.

Heller stood, figuratively, alongside Wilson last week as the congressman and several others proposed amendments to ensure illegal immigrants cannot access any feature of the Democrats’ health care reform bill.

Republicans are finding great short-term success in using illegal immigration to whip up opposition to health care reform, particularly because it is an issue that has divided Democrats.

Democrats are in a bind: Their House bill expressly prohibits illegal immigrants from accessing government-sponsored health care or any of the proposed subsidies to help the uninsured pay premiums.

But the White House has signaled it might like to go a step further and prohibit illegal immigrants from buying private health care policies on the newly created health care exchange, as the Senate has moved to do.

This left House Democrats in an uncomfortable position and gave Republicans a wedge to keep pushing, stoking the conservative base, including the thousands who hollered “Kill the bill!” last week on the steps of the Capitol.

Heller did not attend his colleagues’ news conference Friday to support the amendments that bear his name, but he was there in spirit. (He did join Wilson earlier in the week at a news conference on other health care issues.)

More than once Heller got shout-outs from his colleagues for his efforts to clamp down on illegal immigrants, particularly his amendment to impose a stricter verification system that was shot down by Democrats before it could even come to a vote.

In the days after Wilson shouted “You lie!” at Obama, the White House floated ideas for tightening the verification system in the bill as Heller had suggested. Eventually, Democrats agreed to include a stricter system in the final bill.

But that is not good enough for those who want further restrictions, including the ban on illegal immigrants’ buying private insurance on the health insurance exchange.

Heller’s position is smart short-term politics in his mostly rural Northern Nevada congressional district. Opposing illegal immigration plays well in the north, a district that has never sent a Democrat to Congress, not even during the 2006 wave that brought Democratic control of the House and Senate.

But standing alongside the right wing on immigration may not do Heller well for his long-term political goals.

Heller has said he might like to run for governor someday. He is the state’s best hope, for now, for an eventual Republican Senate candidacy.

His anti-illegal immigrant record might not play so well statewide, particularly in urban Las Vegas, where Hispanic voters are a growing constituency.

Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the effect of Heller’s actions now on his political future remains unclear.

“It doesn’t hurt him, short run, working with Wilson,” he said, noting that among conservatives, “Joe Wilson’s kind of a folk hero.”

But immigration is a volatile issue, and any position taken now “could have repercussions later on. If Heller is seen as too much of a hawk on immigration, it could hurt him.”

But tomorrow is another day. For Republicans today, the goal is to oppose Obama’s top policy priority, health care reform, the best way they know how.

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