Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Republicans will take over the majority of the House of Representatives in January, and when they do, Dean Heller is poised to become Nevada’s most influential voice in the body known as the people’s chamber.
“It’s a complete game-changer for him,” said John Lopez, a longtime staffer on Capitol Hill who now works as a government affairs consultant for R&R Partners in Washington.
Heller came to Washington in 2007, after a dozen years as Nevada’s secretary of state. He took over as representative of the Republican-leaning 2nd Congressional District from now-Gov. Jim Gibbons, who had occupied it for a decade.
Heller has always served in the minority and has somewhat of a reputation as a backbencher.
According to the Knowlegis power rankings list, Heller ranked 420th among the 435 representatives in the House in 2008, and 186th out of the 198 Republicans.
That’s not an entirely fair characterization, however. Heller has worked to close that gap, having written 33 bills and one amendment so far in the current Congress, a list that includes measures on conservation, energy development, health care and microlending, among others.
His work makes him the 56th most active House member, according to OpenCongress.org, though none of those bills has become law.
What may prove to be more important in his new role as Nevada’s most influential House member, however, is his collected cache in his caucus.
Heller has managed to log significant face time with the House’s Republican power players, serving on Speaker-elect John Boehner’s Republican Policy Committee, working as a deputy whip on Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor’s team, and progressing through the House ranks with freshman classmate Kevin McCarthy, who is considered a front-runner for House whip. He also votes with his party 94 percent of the time.
“I think what you’ve seen for the first two terms are him watching how the dots are connected for the purposes of being able to manipulate that system,” said Nevada GOP Chairman Mark Amodei. “He’s not a serious member of the caucus yet, but he’s headed that way.”
Heller’s first opportunity to prove himself may come early on. He’s expected to move up in rank on the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the gateway committee for at least two projected-to-be-gargantuan policy fights: taxes and health care.
Seat shifts and overall House sea-changes mean Heller will graduate from his current role, as second-to-the-bottom in seniority, to a top-tier majority member of the committee.
That’s a higher rank than any other Nevada representative has enjoyed, including Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who also sits on the Ways and Means committee. And though it may not be quite enough to give Heller a subcommittee chair, it’s enough to give him a seat at the table as the newly Republican House prepares to make good on campaign promises to repeal Obama’s health care overhaul and rewrite the nation’s tax laws with a pro-business bent.
“Nevada will have a bigger voice on issues of taxes, trade and health care,” Heller said, adding that he planned to be centrally involved in any legislation that emerges from the committee on those issues. “Whether specifically that means it will be my piece of legislation, or a piece of legislation coming out of Ways and Means, my fingerprints will be on it.”
That’s likely to create some tension between Heller and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will be chiefly responsible for blocking any legislation coming from the House that attempts to pick apart the health care bill.
Reid and Heller have had a fairly strong working relationship, and each knows what it is like to cross the aisle on Nevada-centric issues they agree upon, such as mining and Yucca Mountain policy.
Heller and Reid’s relationship was preserved further when Heller decided not to make a run for the Senate this cycle — a race many believe in retrospect, he could have won.
But as divisions deepen between the parties and between the now-competing houses of Congress, those relationships could change.
“We used to meet as a delegation quite often to discuss issues that affect the state of Nevada. We have not met as a delegation since the (Sen. John Ensign) scandal broke,” said Berkley, who with 12 years of service is still the senior member of Nevada’s House delegation, though she will be in the minority party next year.
Berkley characterizes her relationship with Heller as respectful and courteous, and said the two work together often on Ways and Means issues. But their names are seen in proximity more often these days in rumors about potential Senate campaigns in 2012. Neither has officially committed to a bid.
A beleaguered Ensign may still make a bid for re-election himself, but most state GOP operatives expect there to be a Republican challenger, and expect that challenger to be Heller. Many say his new de facto role as the most influential member of the House delegation could set him up nicely, should he choose to run.
“It allows him to be more substantial as a political figure and a legislator in Washington,” said former state GOP Chairman Steve Wark, who added that Heller ought to try to become the titular head of the state GOP as well. “It has been rudderless for quite a while and ... he’s uniquely qualified to do it.”
The potential for a Senate bid has some Democrats worried, however, that Heller might forgo cooperation within the state delegation in order to build his appeal with Tea Partyers, who made a particularly strong showing in 2010 House races and are expected to be a crucial constituency in Nevada’s 2012 primary.
Heller upset many Democrats this year when he asked whether unemployment benefits were creating a generation of “hobos” — even though he voted in favor of unemployment extensions in the wake of the recession.
“Dean Heller was always considered a moderate until he ran for Congress in 2006; with Sharron Angle on the right, he really moved quite a bit to the right,” said former Nevada Democratic Party Chairwoman Jill Derby. “I would anticipate that he would need to do that again, given the climate in the Republican Party.”
But Heller downplayed speculation that any changes, strategic or ideological, will result from the spotlight that comes with his new role.
“I will serve in the majority the same way I’ve served in the minority,” he said. “My priorities aren’t going to change.”