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September 16, 2014

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Heller appointment to Senate changes campaign calculus

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Sam Morris and Mona Shield Payne/Las Vegas Sun

Left: Dean Heller speaks at the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter on Dec. 4, 2009. Right: Shelley Berkley laughs with constituents during a “Congress on the Corner” event Jan. 14, 2011, at her Las Vegas office.

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Until Gov. Brian Sandoval dubs a successor for Sen. John Ensign, it’s difficult to predict what is in store between now and Nov. 6, 2012. But the election between presumptive nominees Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dean Heller will come down to what they do representing Nevada in Washington.

The question is whether they’ll be working across the congressional aisle or across the Capitol.

Before Heller seemed primed to step into the void created by Ensign’s resignation, we were looking down a long haul of head-to-head competition between Berkley and Heller. Not only are they the two more senior members of Nevada’s three-person House delegation, but they both serve on the Ways and Means Committee.

The committee is the House’s central station for what are and what promise to be the most potent issues of the 2012 campaign season.

Lawmakers in that elite circle hash out their differences over health care programs, Social Security and, not least, taxes on a weekly basis or more. For Nevadans, that means the frequent hearings before that body would be just like mini-debates.

But if Heller moves up, it creates a lot of potential breathing room and outside opportunity to expand the sphere of the competition — but mostly for Heller.

There are a few reasons why. For starters, the Senate is simply a different animal than the House: individual lawmakers, being one of a hundred instead of one in a sea of 435, get a lot more face time, attention, and opportunity to showcase themselves and their causes in committees and on the Senate floor. That’s true whether they’re in the majority or the minority.

In the House, by comparison, being a member of the minority — which Berkley, as a Democrat, is — brings with it a constant struggle for airtime.

While Berkley is dogged about giving voice to her district’s causes on the floor whenever possible, she’s partially hamstrung by the system. It’s very difficult for members of the minority party to bring bills up for a vote.

And while Berkley is a master of the principled position — she stood up against her caucus a few months ago to take a position on estate taxes that wasn’t popular with the liberal base and joined a small band of Democrats who voted to throw in the towel on the Treasury Department’s faltering home mortgage modification program — those opportunities to break the party-on-party mold don’t come up all that often.

In the Senate, it’s also possible to do more.

In the House, Berkley and Heller both serve only on Ways and Means — and while it’s an extremely prestigious committee with a diverse portfolio, it limits the range of issues lawmakers can easily claim as their own.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t serve on any committees, but Ensign had four committee assignments this Congress: Budget; Finance; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

It’s not clear if Sandoval’s appointee will pick up those committees automatically or if there will be some shifting. In the GOP, assignments are within the purview of the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the aptly named Committee on Committees.

But this much is clear: the GOP, if it inherits Heller in Ensign’s place, is going to do all it can to make sure Heller shines as brightly as is possible in the political firmament by the 2012 elections.

For the GOP, the Nevada Senate seat is its most tenuous, which, considering Republicans are considered to have a slight edge in what’s expected to be an awfully close race, says something about the security of the rest of its field of senators.

They’ve only got ten seats to protect in 2012, and of the ten, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has only identified Nevada and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s seat as potential pick-ups.

That doesn’t mean whatever Heller wants, he’ll get. But it means McConnell, who’s eyeing that Senate leadership, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Sen. John Cornyn will be running patterns to make sure Heller is well-served, well-showcased and well-protected.

And that means it’ll be up to Reid to strategically poke holes in their defense.

Half the fun of having Heller in the House for Democrats was all the votes he was going to take that they would try to then build into a campaign of “extremist” charges against him.

Some of the votes they’re likely to target, Heller’s already taken. For example, he voted against the fiscal 2011, $38.5 billion budget deal Reid and House Speaker John Boehner struck to avoid a government shutdown earlier this month, because, he said, it didn’t reduce spending enough.

Berkley voted for it.

He also voted to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, while Berkley voted to support it.

And Democrats have already been coming down hard on Heller for supporting Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal 2012 budget, which severely overhauls Medicaid and Medicare for anyone under 55 and, Democrats say, even robs those currently in the system of millions in prescription assistance to the tune of almost $300 million for Nevadans, according to Reid’s office.

Heller voted for the budget, defending the Medicare and Medicaid changes as necessary steps to preserve the programs for future generations. Berkley voted against it, arguing that it would effectively end Medicare.

If he’s in the Senate, though, from hereon out the person who’s going to be deciding which issues Heller gets a recorded vote on is potentially his greatest nemesis in this election — Harry Reid.

Reid’s playing the role of a blocker in the Senate, which he referred to in an interview with the Sun as a “cooling chamber” for the duration of the 112th Congress. Policy-wise, Democrats’ best defense against what they consider objectionable initiatives is keeping them from coming up. But politically, that takes its toll — both because Republicans are bound to cry foul and because there are fewer opportunities to have a record of the distinctions between the parties, issue by issue and lawmaker by lawmaker.

This year, Reid has amended his tactics somewhat.

He didn’t budge on the health care bill, but he did allow House-backed initiatives like the original $100-billion-in-cuts fiscal 2011 budget bill to come up for a recorded vote in the Senate — it failed, as did the Democrats’ alternative. There were also votes on legislation to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority, which also failed to pass.

As majority leader, Reid is equipped to continue the trend wherever he feels like getting Republicans on record with a vote he thinks won’t play well on the campaign trail, and there are several more opportunities down the pike.

In the next few months alone, lawmakers are going to have vote on raising the debt ceiling and a budget for the next fiscal year, both subjects upon which there’s expected to be deep, deep divides between Democrats and Republicans.

But Reid’s power to force Heller to posture is doubly limited: first, by the Democrats’ caucus — Reid’s only got 53 Democrats, who don’t always fall in line, meaning controversial issues are risky votes — and second, by the accuracy of his political acumen. Constant messaging and packaging make for effective campaigns, but the ultimate verdict on what’s an objectionable voting record isn’t Reid’s — it’s the electorate’s.

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  1. If Heller has the courage to move back towards a more traditional Republican position, and away from the TEA Party, he will have 2012 without much trouble thanks to the independents, assuming he is appointed to Ensign's seat. It is very unlikely he would face a primary challenge, and if he did, he would win without much trouble at all.

    The only person who could possibly give him a challenge won't be in it, Angle. This is what gives him the chance to move back from the fringe right.