Tuesday, May 3, 2011 | 9:09 p.m.
He doesn’t pick up the title of senator until his swearing-in Monday afternoon, but Rep. Dean Heller crossed the Capitol today for his first function in his role-to-be on Tuesday, joining GOP senators for their weekly policy planning lunch.
“It was basically just an introductory session,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had invited him. “He made a few comments about being happy to be here.”
For Heller, joining the Senate is a political goal achieved early. He had been preparing to run for the seat he’ll now occupy in the run-up to the 2012 election.
Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed him to the seat that opened after Sen. John Ensign announced he would resign. Ensign’s career had been too damaged to continue by the fallout of an affair he had with a woman who worked on his campaign and was married to his chief of staff.
Ensign departed the Senate on Monday, clearing the way for Heller to make his early entrance Tuesday afternoon.
The Senate is new ground for Heller, but the GOP’s caucus is not altogether unfamiliar. He’s worked with a handful of members of the GOP Senate caucus when they were in the House and said the welcome, even from those he only knew casually, was a warm one.
“Lamar Alexander [senator from Tennessee] and I had breakfast eight years ago; he was running for president then,” said Heller, describing how he walked up to the senator in the luncheon room expecting Alexander wouldn’t remember him. “He said he remembered.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn was also seen giving Heller a nod and a smile on his way out of the luncheon, held in the Johnson room near the Senate chamber at the Capitol.
But Heller’s relationship with members of the GOP caucus — who seem happy to have the man whose seat is their riskiest in 2012 in it for the next 18 months — may not be as important as his relationship with the man who controls the Senate, fellow Nevadan Harry Reid.
Reid is as powerful a politician as they come in Nevada, and he’s already picked his candidate for the 2012 election — fellow Democrat and longtime friend Rep. Shelley Berkley.
“He now is in a different world,” Reid told Las Vegas public radio station KNPR last week. “He now represents 70 percent of the people of Nevada, that is Clark County, which is not like representing Battle Mountain. And so he’s going to have to broaden his view and understand that.”
As the presumptive nominee from the most conservative part of the state, Heller doesn’t have to worry about appealing to his base. Even Tuesday, it appeared clear that Heller plans to focus his agenda on an issue with bipartisan appeal, especially in the southern part of the state: energy.
“My priorities haven’t changed from the House. My biggest priority in Nevada is energy policy,” Heller told reporters outside the luncheon room. “Foreclosures, energy, jobs...I will continue to focus on those issues on the Senate side.”
That’s not a record Democrats necessarily agree with.
Nevada Democrats jumped down Heller’s throat last week when he criticized a delegation of Republicans making a fact-finding mission to Yucca mountain, saying “their time would be better spent looking at the abundance of renewable energy opportunities Nevada has to offer.”
Releasing a “hypocrisy alert,” Nevada State Democratic Party spokesman Zach Hudson retorted with a reference to Heller’s vote on the Republican fiscal 2011 budget, H.R. 1.
“Wait a second...isn’t this the same Dean Heller who recently voted to eliminate the Department of Energy Loan Guarantee Program, a clean energy jobs program that will create thousands of renewable energy jobs in Nevada?” Hudson said. “Instead of using more empty rhetoric to distract from his record, Heller should be honest with Nevadans that he voted to destroy thousands of Nevada clean energy jobs.”
Given Berkley and Heller’s common background in the House and the many controversial issues that both parties expect will become national campaign issues in 2012, there’s a strong chance that the Heller-Berkley race will play itself out by proxy in the Senate over the next 18 months between Heller and Reid.
That’s going to make for a different climate than Nevada’s Senate contingent has been used to for the past several years. Though relations between Reid and Ensign suffered in the wake of the latter’s scandal, the two had a remarkably good working relationship, even a friendship, for most of their joint Senate career.
Diametric opposites politically, they managed to work together well on state issues and kept up a non-aggression pact in public for most other issues.
When asked if he expected to strike a similar non-aggression pact with Reid now that he’s headed to the Senate, Heller chuckled.
“Based on comments I heard recently, I don’t think there is a pact,” Heller said. “But that’s up to him.”