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May 22, 2015

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Heller-Berkley Senate race shrank Nevada’s congressional muscle

When the new Congress is sworn in early next year, Nevada’s delegation will have only one new face: Steven Horsford, the inaugural holder of the 4th Congressional District seat.

But despite an otherwise familiar roster, Nevada is set to experience a rather dramatic change in the standing of its delegation.

The culprit? A critical loss of clout.

Even in an era where Tea Party movements and other grass-roots demonstrations have complicated congressional deal-making, the most surefire way to wield influence in Washington is to have seniority.

But ever since Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley decided to jump from the House into a campaign for the Senate, the writing has been on the wall presaging the reduced influence of Nevada’s congressional contingent.

The departure of Heller and Berkley from the House cost Nevada a combined 20 years of seniority in that body. Heller, who was appointed to the Senate to replace scandal-ridden Sen. John Ensign in 2011, has just 18 months under his belt in the upper house. And Berkley will no longer serve in either body.

Nevada’s new House delegation has a combined tenure of just three years: Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., was just re-elected to his second term, and Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., has one year in Congress after the 2011 special election.

Rep.-elect Dina Titus, D-Nev., technically has two years experience from her time serving in the 3rd Congressional District. But that seniority doesn’t carry over into her new term representing the 1st Congressional District.

“Nevada is going back to one level where they should be: We’re still a real small state,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at UNR. “But we still have the most important actor, and that’s Harry Reid.”

Two years ago, Reid was re-elected to a six-year Senate term, largely on the strength of his argument that as majority leader, he was able to safeguard Nevada’s interests in Washington. But pre-election, his powerful position appeared to be in jeopardy, as Democrats in the Senate scrambled to protect 23 seats — and a tenuous majority — in 2012.

That they ended up increasing their majority not only saved, but solidified Reid’s majority leadership. He is now heading into his seventh year as majority leader, making his tenure longer than that of famed Democratic majority leaders Lyndon Johnson or Robert Byrd. (Mike Mansfield of Montana still holds the record, at 16 years.)

“The Democrats in the Senate are now just beholden to Harry Reid and Patty Murray,” Herzik said, referencing the Washington state Democratic senator. “Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) can scheme all he wants. But Harry Reid and Patty Murray took a losing hand and won.”

That bodes well for Nevada’s interests, as most deals circulate around the congressional leadership.

“That seems to be the norm these days,” said David Damore of UNLV. “Things are very centralized.”

In the past two years, bills to fund everything from transportation projects to the federal budget came down to negotiations that transpired away from the committee process and close to Reid’s offices. In the process, Nevada has netted a few niche wins, such as funding to complete the Interstate 11 project between Las Vegas and Phoenix.

In the next several months, Reid’s chambers are likely to become at least a partial crucible for legislation to contend with the fiscal cliff — or at least the debt ceiling — and tax reform, where Nevada has special interests, such as the preservation of the sales tax deduction and the continuance of tax waivers for forgiven mortgage balances.

Nevada used to have a stronger voice on such matters, when Heller, Berkley and their predecessors served on the Ways and Means committee in the House.

“Now we have no one on Ways and Means, and that’s a biggie,” Damore said. “Moving forward, if we’re actually serious about tax reform, that could be quite serious for us.”

Committee assignments have yet to be made, but it’s uncertain whether any of Nevada’s newbies would be appointed to a committee as powerful as Ways and Means. Horsford and Titus will have to lobby the Democratic Party for their preferred placements. But with a reduced complement of available seats, compared with sessions past, it’s not clear how many favors they will be able to call in — especially Titus, whose new heavily Democratic district is especially safe.

In the Senate, Heller — who spent this year on Energy and Natural Resources, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging — may also try for a new committee assignment or two. Though he spent his first term as the most junior senator in town, Heller will outrank two new Republican senators at the start of the 113th Congress: Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

As for Amodei and Heck, there’s less chance for any significant committee reassignments. Amodei had seats on the Judiciary, Veterans Affairs and Natural Resources committees. The latter was a role he took particular interest in, presenting a handful of bills on public lands issues for Northern Nevada, including a bill to green-light a Yerington copper mine that got hung up in between the House and Senate processes.

Meanwhile, Heck served on the Armed Services, Intelligence, Education and the Workforce Committees, panels in which he took a fairly active role, introducing bills about promoting tourism and protecting military service records.

If anyone is positioned to up Nevada’s clout in the House, it’s likely Heck. The sophomore representative is Nevada’s second-most senior member of the delegation. He also serves on House Speaker John Boehner’s steering committee, which picks and chooses which Republican representatives will serve on which committees, and who will lead them.

“I think that’s a great position for somebody from a small state like Nevada to because you do have an opportunity to have influence far beyond the size of our delegation,” Heck said last week, shortly after learning he had won re-election.

But when asked how he would specifically use that leverage to benefit Nevada, even Heck returned to a familiar refrain, saying he expected to wield his newfound seniority chiefly to lobby not his own party leadership, but the dean of Nevada’s delegation, in the hopes that he would help along some of his legislation.

“I’ll continue to use my leverage as being the senior member of the House delegation from Nevada to work with Sen. Reid,” Heck said. “And try to move those things forward that are important to the folks back home.”

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