Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Why Harry Reid, Dean Heller may get along in the Senate

WASHINGTON -- Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign had a famous non-aggression pact.

Sens. Reid and Dean Heller? Well, at least they’ve had breakfast together.

Now that the election is over, one of the biggest questions for Nevada is what the Reid-Heller relationship will look like.

For the past 18 months, it hasn’t been pretty.

When Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley was challenging Heller to represent Nevada in the Senate, Reid used the strength of his majority leadership to strike at Heller, who was serving out the rest of Ensign’s term.

Using his control of the calendar, Reid made sure Heller was on record voting to end mandated coverage of birth control and restructure Medicare twice — themes that Berkley played up heavily in her campaign. He also jeered at Heller’s inability to bring members of his own party on board with his own payroll tax cut extension.

In the final weeks of the election, Reid charged Heller wasn’t up to the task of being a senator, when he couldn’t drum up 15 Republicans to support an online poker bill by early September.

After votes were in, both Reid and Heller dismissed their words as election bygones and declared themselves each other’s biggest fan.

So far though, they haven’t had much opportunity to share the love in person, or turn their post-election truce into a full-steam ahead plan to fight in partnership for Nevada’s interests.

Since Nov. 6, Reid and Heller have spoken twice via telephone, Heller said Wednesday.

Then on Thursday morning, the two enjoyed a photo op in front of constituents visiting Washington, D.C., at a weekly, invite-only breakfast at the Capitol. Even Gov. Brian Sandoval popped by to give the new pairing his official thumbs-up.

Still, Reid and Heller have yet to turn these votes of confidence into a functional relationship.

The odds are somewhat stacked against them.

The Senate is a much more partisan place than it was when the last Nevada pact was in place.

“The notion used to be, we are a small state, and so it was best to keep everybody in there to preserve seniority,” said David Damore, a political scientist at UNLV. “Party was there, but it wasn’t as divisive as it is now.”

In the partisan environment, another complicating factor is that Reid and Heller don’t have power parity across the aisle. Heller is still one of the most junior senators in Congress, and hasn’t yet built the clout his predecessor had.

“It would be nice if you had a voice on the Republican side that was equal to, say, what John Ensign used to be,” said Eric Herzik, political science professor at UNR. “Dean needs to step up and become that voice.”

Before he destroyed his reputation, Ensign climbed the Senate career ladder quickly, working his way into Republican leadership and onto the Finance committee.

Heller doesn’t have enough seniority to do that.

“It’s probably not going to play out this cycle, but maybe in cycles down the road,” Heller said. He expects to remain on at least the Energy and Natural Resources committee, and perhaps the Commerce committee.

Still, the stakes for the success of the Reid-Heller partnership are high. Traditionally, the Nevada senators’ relationship has set the tone for the entire delegation. The delegation’s normal camaraderie was utterly broken after Ensign’s resignation caused colleagues to become bitter political rivals.

But the election results may have established new incentives to get the delegation working together again. All four House members won their races handily. And though Heller’s contest was close, he’s now politically secure for six years. Perhaps more important, neither he nor Reid will have to mount a re-election race in two years.

“Being safe plays into the relationship as well,” Damore said. “It’ll be interesting to see if they put the (partisanship) behind them. I think a lot of them will.”

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