Monday, March 7, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Although health care and the budget get top billing, most of the bills that pass through Congress are noncontroversial, small-time measures that 99 percent of lawmakers couldn’t care less about — unless it’s their state or district in question.
Local-issue bills have always been a mainstay for the delegation from Nevada, a state that seems to be constantly bumping up against federal regulations on Bureau of Land Management land, energy production, conservation programs or expanding social services.
For years, such Nevada-specific bills have been all-in family affairs, where the politically diverse delegation comes together to back near-identical House and Senate versions and push as a united front.
But that wasn’t the case last week, when Rep. Dean Heller and Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign unveiled House and Senate versions of a bill to prevent mining companies from gaining access to a large gravel quarry in Henderson.
The Sloan Hills bill, a reintroduction of a bill filed last Congress, has received full delegation support in the past, but some names were missing this time around.
Ensign’s news release didn’t mention Heller. Heller’s news release didn’t mention Ensign. And when it came to the list of co-sponsors, Rep. Shelley Berkley’s name was nowhere to be found. That had some back home asking why.
“This year, Shelley Berkley told me they wouldn’t let her sign on. I called just to verify I still had her support for the bill,” Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, whose district is home to the Sloan Hills site, said Friday. “She tried to get put on it, and Mr. Heller didn’t want her name put on it.
“I don’t know if this is ego stuff or what ... and I don’t want to get into their internal disputes,” he said. “In my opinion, everybody needs to put politics aside and work together to get this passed.”
Sisolak is a Democrat, as is Berkley, whose district encompasses most of Las Vegas and part of Henderson. But the Sloan Hills project lies within Heller’s district. His office said Heller had no intention of excluding Berkley, and welcomed her support.
“That’s just not an accurate depiction of what happened,” Heller spokesman Stewart Bybee said, adding that Berkley could sign on to the bill at any time.
It’s no secret that Berkley, Heller and Ensign are expected to face off against each other in the 2012 race for the Senate seat that Ensign occupies. That dynamic is raising the political stakes around each bill, however noncontroversial — and casting kleig lights on every political idiosyncrasy, whether or not the hiccups were intentional.
“It’s the unofficial start of the campaign,” UNLV political science professor David Damore said. “This is the jockeying we’re going to see on every little thing from now on.”
On this issue, it seems, timing played a role in creating the specter of political slight.
“This is simply a miscommunication: We introduced our bill earlier than expected,” said Zac Petkanas, a spokesman for Reid. “My understanding is that there was some confusion within the House delegation, but what’s important is that we are all on the same page working together to ensure that the Sloan Hills gravel pit never becomes a reality.”
But if all politics is local politics, it’s incredibly important that lawmakers are seen as being proactive on local issues — which in especially close races, can be the difference between winning or losing an election. Being on the right side of an issue is good, but being the first promoter of the right issue is even better.
When it comes to local issue bills, Heller has been the most active member in recent years, partially because his district covers the most federal land, and thus runs into the most fixes with the federal government.
In the last Congress, Heller submitted at least 10 bills that were solely tied to Nevada-based projects and issues, and brought along Berkley and then-Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat, on five — the Sloan Hills bill among them.
In each instance, Berkley and Titus co-signed on the day the bill was released.
But that was when Heller was in the Republican minority — meaning he needed the co-sponsorship of Democrats to get his bill attention on the floor.
As the senior Republican in the House delegation, Heller holds the most political cachet. That means chasing down those Democrat co-sponsors really isn’t an urgent issue — certainly not when your potential primary opponent is putting his name out there on an issue that many Clark County voters are passionate about, in a part of the state where securing support is crucial for a GOP contender.
Reid was the first to announce the Sloan Hills bill, about 11 a.m. Tuesday. Heller then ended up beating Ensign’s announcement by about three hours in the afternoon.
“And there’s your primary contest right there ... Sun City, that’s a great group of primary voters,” Damore said, referring to the residential area neighboring the pit. “Claiming credit for something is a good way to show that you’re being responsive to constituencies; it’s a way to cover your bases that’s relatively cost-free.”
“But this is going to be more difficult for Berkley,” Damore said — geographically, because her district is confined to Las Vegas and its closest environs, which are Democratic strongholds. “Being in the minority in the House, there really aren’t that many ways to get yourself heard.”