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April 23, 2014

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Heller’s, Berkley’s votes on debt ceiling speak loudly

The debt ceiling crisis is over, but the votes lawmakers cast will live on through the election season.

Three of four members of Nevada’s delegation voted for the compromise deal to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling. But as far as Nevada’s electorate is concerned, two of those votes mattered more than the rest: Shelley Berkley’s (yes) and Dean Heller’s (no).

Berkley and Heller head home to Nevada this week to kick off the first full-throttle campaigning in what’s expected to be a bitterly contested election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated when John Ensign resigned amid an ethics scandal in May. Heller has filled the seat since, on the appointment of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.

If it were up to them, the debt limit wouldn’t be first on the electoral agenda. But it’s the issue du jour, thanks to an ongoing special 2nd Congressional District election fight between Mark Amodei and Kate Marshall, in which both candidates spare no opportunity to hammer home their opposition to the debt compromise.

Berkley seemed aware of the charged atmosphere, especially in that northern district, when she cast her vote Monday, and tried to fade as quietly into the background as possible afterward.

“This bipartisan agreement is far from perfect, but it cuts our nation’s debt by trillions, while safeguarding Social Security, Medicare and VA beneficiaries,” Berkley said in a statement that she declined to elaborate upon after the vote. She was one of 95 Democrats who voted for the deal, while 95 voted against it. “It’s time for us to move forward and focus on getting our economy back on track and on creating jobs for the people of Nevada and our nation.”

Heller, however, was willing to talk about his “no” vote — one of just 26 cast in the Senate — though as he did, he disparaged the whole debt debate as a “sideshow,” and said he was actually pleased, despite his vote, to see the debt ceiling raised.

“First and foremost, we’ve got to be happy that we raised the debt ceiling ... I think it was good news that we raised the debt ceiling, good news that we didn’t close down 41 percent of the government,” he said. “I’ll give credit where credit is due ... but at the end of the day, I’ve got to judge whether that final deal is something I can support ... in this deal, I really do think the bad outweighed the good.

“In Nevada ... they’re talking about creating jobs, we’re talking here about raising the debt ceiling,” he said. “There’s a real disconnect between what’s going on in Washington, D.C., and what’s going on in the state of Nevada.”

It’s a point Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also stressed Tuesday: Before called for senators’ votes, he urged them to vote for it so Washington could finally put this issue to bed and focus on a jobs agenda.

But Democrats and Republicans disagree about what creates jobs.

For Reid and Berkley, it’s things such as patent bills, infrastructure banks and a more progressive tax policy that ends tax cuts on the richest Americans. They’re hoping to push such ideas when Congress returns to hash out the finer points of this debt compromise.

In a second stage, Congress will be challenged to adopt a package of further deficit reductions, in which Democrats hope — and expect — that tax revenue so far absent from the deal will play a significant role.

For Heller, economic salvation comes through cuts. He stressed Tuesday that he didn’t think any bill that cut less than $4 trillion could sustain a hefty enough “growth strategy” to create jobs.

What Heller had been seeking in a debt compromise was a mandate for Congress to adopt a constitutional balanced budget amendment, with spending capped to 20 percent of GDP. The rationale is that ordering that spending remain low encourages fiscal restraint, and keeping tax rates low encourages the private sector to generate jobs.

Democrats say it’s just the opposite — that cuts in such a package would actually cause the economy to hemorrhage 700,000 jobs if implemented.

Differences of opinions such as these are going to continue to define lawmakers in the coming months as lawmakers work through subsequent budgeting sections of this new law, and candidates as they answer for the work they’re doing in Washington on the campaign trail.

The debt ceiling issue, while it may make for a great campaign sound bite, “is really much ado about nothing,” said Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “It may have legs for an election coming up in September, but I think it’ll be completely off the radar screen for next year because sadly, we’ll be dealing with something else.

“We’re facing the greatest philosophical, or ideological election in American history since 1964,” Lokken continued. “It’s an election of fundamental choice ... and all of the other issues that we think of, health care, entitlement programs, will just be used as examples of good or evil.”

That fight is already well underway.

Over the last few months, Democrats have labeled the Republicans’ spending proposals as growth-hampering and Draconian; Republicans have labeled Democrats as tax-happy spendthrifts. Even as they came together in the compromise, Republican leaders were warning Democrats that they wouldn’t vote for tax hikes in the subsequent stages of deficit reduction process later this year, and some Democrats were openly wondering if they wouldn’t be better off if Congress failed to compromise and the country hit across-the-board triggers. If that had occurred, at least veterans, Social Security recipients, Medicaid and food stamp recipients, and Medicare recipients (though not providers) would be spared a chop.

As the process moves forward, the distinction between the issues are only going to become more confusing for voters. Until now, it’s been Berkley hitting Heller on Medicare, using his several votes on Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan to do it. Then, Tuesday afternoon, it was Heller swinging at Democrats for scaling back $500 billion under Obama’s health care law, and another 2 percent in program cuts to Medicare providers if Congress hits the debt compromise’s worst-case scenario cuts at the end of the year. (Republican leaders were actually pushing for a 4 percent cut to Medicare providers.)

At the end of the day, many of these issues will get mired in twisting, slanting and spin, Lokken said, which will likely only leave voters with a worse impression of Washington as a “manhandled, mishandled mess.”

And that would only contribute to voters’ lack of interest to parse out the reasons behind the positions lawmakers take.

For instance, the debt ceiling. “Find me a voter who can actually tell me what they agreed to ... the sad reality is that quick and dirty works,” Lokken said. “Most voters never invest the time necessary to understand the issues.”

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