Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Nevada’s delegation revived a tradition that’s been dormant for at least a congressional session Wednesday afternoon when they met en masse to talk through state issues in a room off the Senate floor.
“I think it’s important that we recognize that Nevada has a much larger congressional delegation than we’ve ever had before, and it’s important that we work together,” Sen. Harry Reid, the dean of the delegation, said at a roundtable with his colleagues.
During a half-hour long discussion, the Silver State lawmakers agreed to work together to promote a group of public lands bills, starting with legislation to give Yerington about 12,500 acres of federal lands to develop as a copper mine in exchange for designating another 48,000 acres of Lyon County a wilderness area. A second bill would designate about 26,000 acres north of Winnemucca a wilderness area. A third bill, to purchase federal land for the Three Kids Mine cleanup in Henderson, will likely join that set in the next few weeks.
Sitting around a table in the Capitol, Nevada lawmakers remarked that presenting a united front on public lands and other state issues should be easy.
“Historically, in Nevada, we’ve always worked well together,” Heller offered.
But for the last few years, an all-team meeting such as this one was unheard of.
Nevada’s lawmakers used to meet as a matter of course, to hash out the Silver State’s priorities on issues ranging from public lands to appropriations, and discuss how hot-button issues of the day would affect the home front.
John Ensign’s ethics scandal in 2009 and Sen. Dean Heller and former Rep. Shelley Berkley’s bitter 2012 election battle put a damper on those exercises in camaraderie.
While Nevada’s three Republicans and three Democrats are still divided on many issues, the bitterness and tension of the last few years had clearly dissipated.
Most credited it to their history serving together in the Nevada Legislature.
“All four of us in the House, we all were in the Senate together at the same time. Joe Heck, we were freshmen in the state senate together, we’ve co-sponsored legislation,” Rep. Steven Horsford said.
Horsford and Heck both became state senators in 2004, joining Reps. Mark Amodei and Dina Titus in the Legislature. Heller was also in Carson City, serving at the time as Nevada’s Secretary of State. In the late 1990s, Heller and Titus served together in the Legislature.
“We all know each other from Nevada politics, so we’re not strangers to each other. We’ve been friends, we’ve known each other, played together,” Titus said.
They are also well-versed at ribbing each other, as evidenced in the following exchange:
“Dina and I, in 1991, were co-chairs of the arts caucus,” Heller pointed out.
“That’s right. Founding co-chairs!” Titus said.
“You mean Dean was an arts guy?” Amodei asked scoffingly. “You should have some help with your office then.”
“I did a lot of singing then,” Heller explained.
“My only disappointment in this meeting,” Reid added after a while, “is that I think Amodei teases Heller far too much.”
“I agree! I agree,” Heller said.
“Well, now that you’re protecting him, I’ll lay off of him,” Amodei said teasingly to Reid, eliciting general laughter. “That changes everything.”
Reid commented during the meeting that the lack of a Senate race meant working within the delegation “should be easy this Congress.”
But that doesn’t mean they will agree on everything.
Nevada lawmakers said they discussed immigration, gun control and sequestration — all looming fights on the near horizon. But they neither made — nor seemed to be striving for — much progress toward common ground.
“We’re just talking,” Reid said.
“Just process,” Heller added.
The Nevada lawmakers didn’t even touch the subject of energy. But they did get into a discussion on earmarks that may reveal new areas for common ground.
Earmarks are budget items that members of Congress add in, to get federal funding for local projects that might otherwise escape the notice of the administration. Reid is a self-titled “big fan of earmarks,” while Heller called them “the foundation of corruption.”
“But I think now that we’ve gone a couple of years, we can reassess the positions on this,” Heller said. “I still strongly disagree with earmarks going to private companies. But we can take a look at earmarks to universities, roads ... some of that makes a lot of sense, especially when it comes to highways and bridges and creating jobs.”
“Dean you represented Amodei’s district for so long. If there were ever a need for us having direct spending, it’s to the very large rural areas,” Reid said, nodding his understanding of Heller’s point.
“Right, right: Infrastructure is critical,” Heller agreed. “Not only for these small rural areas but for job creation.”
How that and other conversations among members of the delegation bear fruit, however, will be determined in future all-Nevada meetings. The aim is to have members gather in similar fashion once every six to eight weeks.
As the senior House member, it’s Heck’s turn to schedule the next meeting, over on the House side of the Capitol building.