Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Dean Heller looks at this new year as a fresh start — to the extent that anyone actually can have one in a place like the Senate when you’ve already been hanging around for a year and a half.
“I want it to feel like a fresh start, but it really hasn’t because we have so many issues,” Heller said during an interview this month in his office. “It just doesn’t slow down. So it’s kind of hard to take that deep breath you think you deserve after such a campaign.”
Heller, the Republican appointed to fill out John Ensign’s term when Ensign retired in mid-2011, eked out a close, 12,127-vote victory over his longtime colleague from the House of Representatives, Democrat Shelley Berkley, who challenged him for the Senate seat in November. The campaign was long and ugly, but in the end, Heller prevailed in a state President Barack Obama won handily — the only Republican senator to accomplish that kind of electoral feat.
In a way, the outcome changed nothing, as Heller was a senator before Nov. 6. In another, it changed everything.
“The difference of being elected as opposed to being appointed has made a huge difference,” Heller said. “You can see that there’s just a real dynamic between people who have been through the wars and the battles that it takes to be where we are today and those who haven’t. I think they wanted to see me tested first.”
He’s talking about his peers, those 47 senators, soon to be 45, who make up the Republican caucus.
For a junior senator operating in the highly politicized environment of Congress, having the support of the team — especially the players at the top — is crucial to getting any pet projects noticed. Heller now feels as if he’s earned those key senators’ respect.
“They know now that I’m a member of this body and what I say, my concerns, my experiences matter as much as theirs do,” Heller said. “Things that are important to me are now important to them.”
Heller’s challenge is figuring out where and how to apply the authority of his now-sanctioned office.
For now, he seems focused on addressing issues that grew directly out of the election.
Heller’s portfolio for 2013, as he’s loosely defined it, is shaped by his experience in the 2012 election season. He won the Senate seat. But he lost the women’s vote. He also lost the increasingly important Hispanic vote. And it’s apparent that Heller is aware of how that, in any other environment, could be a serious problem.
“It’s my belief the Republican Party needs to reach out and be much more inclusive,” Heller said, advocating that Republicans start “talking about campaigns of addition as opposed to subtraction.”
“We need to bring in the immigration population and let them know that what the Republicans are doing is in their best interest,” Heller said. “We have women issues, which you saw during the campaign — whether it was in Missouri or Indiana, the comments that were made by some of these candidates were wrong, they were stupid.”
Heller, who has a history of voting against immigration measures in Congress and assured constituents that “I don’t support amnesty. ... I don’t support the Dream Act” in his first race for federal office, has in the weeks since his victory embraced everything about the Dream Act except its name.
“My focus today is to make sure we have more of a humanitarian approach going forward and making sure those who are in this country by no choice of their own but have contributed ... to the American way of life ought to have an opportunity and a chance for citizenship without having to be deported,” Heller said.
But he doesn’t have as central a position angling for immigration legislation as many Nevada Republicans had hoped he would.
A December Politico report identified a new “gang of 8” senators working to craft immigration legislation. It includes senators who were in the trenches last time immigration came to the fore in 2007, such as Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, and Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It also includes new Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who had worked on immigration in the House.
But it does not include Heller.
“Most of the people in that group are the people who have history discussing the immigration policy issue,” Heller said. “And I don’t take any offense. I don’t mind taking a supportive role.”
Heller is placing his bets on another outsider: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who in the past year was rumored to be working on a Dream Act alternative that never materialized. Heller has focused his efforts to be involved in the process chiefly on Rubio, though he was not reported as being part of the ad hoc Senate immigration group.
“I think Rubio is the key to this. He’s the individual who’s going to determine the success of any bipartisan immigration policy going forward,” Heller said. “I’ve just offered up my help and support, coming through a campaign in the state where immigration plays a big role, if they want my feedback, my thoughts.
“And they do, they have assured me that they do.”
Heller also is gearing up for a 2013 turn at online poker — which may prove to be the truest test of his newfound clout in his caucus.
In mid-December, Sen. Harry Reid declared online poker officially dead for the duration of the 112th Congress, turning it into a 2013 issue. With that announcement, Heller graduated to the rank of chief Republican on the poker issue, as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona — Reid’s across-the-aisle partner on poker issues during this past Congress — retires this year.
“That’s a big change. That is a substantial variable in the process moving forward,” Heller said. “I don’t know yet how that changes the dynamics of the legislation moving forward.”
Heller has been fully integrated in the poker process the past few months and considers himself ready to take on the task — in fact, he is actively trying to sell the merits of online poker to his colleagues. But he’s also aware that he is not the Senate’s No. 2 ranking Republican.
“Kyl’s the whip, and Kyl’s relationships were obviously very helpful with the other members of our conference,” Heller said, explaining that Kyl’s history of having been a key booster of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006 made him a compelling salesman for the new online poker bill. Heller was not yet in Congress when that was passed.
Heller listed at least four Republican senators he’s been recently working to get on board with online poker during the half-hour interview, sounding optimistic about Sens. Jerry Moran, Rob Portman, Lamar Alexander and Pat Roberts. Roberts, Heller said, told him “you’re right” about the need to support a bill.
Even if Heller can whip up his approximately 15 requisite Republicans — a number thrown out by Reid this year — he still will have to worry about working his old House Republican colleagues to get it passed.
“I was hoping it would start in the House,” Heller said of the poker process, recalling how he had made that point in a letter to Reid in early September, which played into an ugly catfight between Reid's and Heller’s offices before the election. “I think now it’s got to come from the Senate, but I don’t know at the end of the day how you solve the problem in the House.”
Past that, Heller is still looking for the next place to try to make a mark.
He did not get his coveted Finance Committee assignment, but Heller will have a few years of seniority under his belt on Energy and Natural Resources, where he will have the opportunity to establish himself as an operator on energy policy — which there is pressure to tackle after immigration — and public lands issues, which remain important to Nevada. Heller and Reid laid the groundwork to start off on the right foot there, with a bill to approve land swaps in Lyon County that they likely will put more muscle behind in 2013.
Heller also expressed an interest in continuing to work with the public advocacy group No Labels, which did some rabble-rousing for Heller’s No Budget, No Pay Act that would have stripped lawmakers of their pay for every day they didn’t pass a budget, starting in February. Heller says he thinks the group, which projects a generalized call for more functionality in Congress, has “real opportunity to start picking up” in 2013.
Through No Labels and other avenues, Heller appears to be taking pains to project a political profile that is as centrist as it is Republican. To wit, his recent comments on Obamacare: “It’s the law of the land. ... It’s not going to be repealed. It’s not going to be substantially changed. President Obama got re-elected. Let’s move on.”
That, from the senator who said he was “proud” to vote twice for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which restructured Medicare and rolled back Obamacare entirely.
Heller brushes off the suggestion that the vagaries of his positions on key issues are evidence that his politics are morphing or evolving.
“I think I’m very pragmatic and I want to get things done — whatever role I’ve had, I’ve embraced that role and do what’s necessary to get the work done,” Heller said matter-of-factly. “I don’t know if that necessarily changes your philosophy. It may change your policy of how you get things done, but I don’t know if it necessarily changes your philosophy.”
Heller defines his philosophy on Washington as a fairly simple rubric of three main priorities: The government should fix its spending problem but work to ensure safety and security, the highways and roads that support commerce, and safety net provisions — such as unemployment benefits — are taken care of.
And as a Nevadan in government, he adds fighting for Nevada issues, such as public lands and Yucca Mountain, to the list of responsibilities that come with the office.
There’s a new challenge for Heller, and for all of the Nevada delegation, in that endeavor. Ensign’s ethics scandal and the Berkley-Heller race that followed drove a sharp divide through the historically cooperative delegation. In fact, it’s been so long that Heller and Reid are the only members of next Congress’ six-man team that experienced the days when everyone used to work well together.
Heller stressed that he and Reid are in regular touch and that he expects to reach out to all the members of the Nevada delegation in the new year — especially Rep.-to-be Steven Horsford, whose newest 4th Congressional District covers some of the turf Heller used to represent.
He’s promising to work to keep everybody pressing as a team for Nevada’s priorities, especially public lands and Yucca Mountain. But he’s not promising peace and harmony — or even necessarily going for it — in the Silver State ranks.
“I don’t mind there being disagreement ... because I do think in the long run it produces better legislation,” Heller said. “Nevada’s always better off if we’re sitting down and talking.”