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October 22, 2014

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Heller on emerging deal to end shutdown, avoid default: It’s a ‘nothing sandwich’

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Leila Navidi

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. talks to the media after his victory at the Palazzo in Las Vegas after midnight on Wednesday, November 7, 2012.

Only the most stalwart Tea Party-loving Republicans will tell you they’re not feeling the heat on Capitol Hill as the clock ticks down to Oct. 17 — the day that President Barack Obama’s top financial advisers say we begin to default on our debts.

Yet Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., wasn’t willing to put his faith in a budding budget and debt limit deal between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell Tuesday before trying — one last time — to take a swipe at Obamacare.

“Are we overplaying our hand? ... I don’t know the answer,” Heller said. “Granted, Democrats have the best hand today on what direction they want to go … But this is a nothing sandwich that can’t get enough votes with both sides involved.”

Days of negotiations ground to a halt Tuesday, as Reid and McConnell decided to table their nearly completed efforts to find middle ground, fund the federal government until mid-January and avoid another run-in with the debt limit until the beginning of February while House Republicans whipped votes for their own measure.

Reid complained that he was “blindsided” by the news that House Republicans were attempting their own measure to fund the government through mid-December, in exchange for an end to the employer subsidies that are paid by the government for the health insurance that lawmakers and their staff will be buying on the health care exchanges.

It’s a bargaining chip that Heller supports.

“I’m just hoping that (House Speaker John) Boehner can get 218 people together and come up with some kind of a plan or solution that they could pass,” Heller said. “If it’s 218 Republicans that come here, that’s a very strong message.”

But as the hours wore on Tuesday, it was clear that Republicans didn’t have the votes — an impression made certain when House Republican leaders decided to pack up and go home.

“Ten hours later we’ve wasted an entire day when we have 30 hours left to go until the U.S. may default on our obligations,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. "I’m still here in my office; I stayed here all day waiting to be called to vote on something. … Are they going to put at risk the full faith and credit in the United States and continue to hold our process hostage?”

Horsford, like most Democrats, is eyeing Thursday as the absolute dead-drop date for a deal.

Heller thinks there might be a little more wiggle room.

“Forty-eight hours (from now) isn’t a default. The default is when we don’t pay the interest on our debt … and I don’t want to get there,” Heller said. “The administration gave us the 17th as a date. It may be two weeks prior to that, it may be two weeks after that … maybe Nov. 1 is that day.”

If the Treasury Department has the ability to take additional “extraordinary measures” allowing the country to pay its debts after Thursday, none of its officers have let that on. Outside observers don’t seem inclined to be too forgiving either: Tuesday afternoon, the Fitch credit rating agency put the U.S.’s triple-A rating on negative watch.

“I’m not denying that that isn’t a huge, huge issue with the markets,” Heller said of the debt limit just a few hours before the ratings agency made its announcement. “I don’t want to get to the 17th. I want to solve this by Thursday. But kicking the can down the road 90 days with no changes, absolutely no changes?”

Heller’s chief complaint with the discussions going on between Reid and McConnell is that they do not fundamentally solve the country’s long-term budgeting problem. Should Congress ultimately pass their deal — which McConnell and Reid resumed negotiating Tuesday night — lawmakers would be faced with the same set of budgeting challenges in early 2014, potentially absent the discussion about the Obamacare exchanges and mandates, which will already be fully operational by then.

With a little more time, Heller said, he didn’t understand why Congress couldn’t come up with a more comprehensive budget, instead of a short-term patch.

But he’s also not going to be the guy holding things up to make sure that happens.

When asked if he would filibuster a Reid-McConnell deal if he disagreed with it, Heller’s response was as immediate as it was definite.

“I wouldn’t filibuster. I would not delay this bill past the 17th,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody else in our conference would, but I certainly wouldn’t.”

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