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April 20, 2015

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On immigration, gun control, taxes, Heller’s views are a-changin’


Steve Marcus

Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) arrives for a Romney-Ryan campaign rally at the Henderson Pavilion Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.

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Two years ago, Sen. Dean Heller voted twice for Paul Ryan’s budget. This month, however, he declared it “not serious” and said he’s “absolutely open to revenue.”

Five months ago, the Nevada Republican held a key campaign rally at a Las Vegas gun shop to bolster his Second Amendment chops. Now he’s leaning toward support for universal background checks despite objections from the National Rifle Association.

And for years as a Northern Nevada congressman, he flatly rejected anything more than a meager guest worker program for some undocumented workers, voting against the Dream Act. At last month’s State of the Union, when President Barack Obama declared to broad applause that “now is the time” for comprehensive immigration reform, Heller leaned over to Rep. Steven Horsford, a Democrat from Las Vegas, to crow, “Looks like we got consensus on that one.”

Consensus has not been a word used often by or about Heller in Washington. But that was before he became the lone Republican senator elected in a state Obama won last year. That was also before, upon his appointment in 2011 to complete disgraced Sen. John Ensign’s term, his electorate shifted overnight from the domain of staunch, mostly white conservatives who nearly picked Sharron Angle over him in a brutal 2006 House primary to an increasingly Democratic one that is projected to be majority-minority by 2030.

“If you believe that you’re there to represent your constituents and not necessarily yourself, then it’s going to adjust,” Heller said during an interview in his office last week. “I’m asked this question a lot: ‘Do you vote based on what you think is right or what your constituents think is right?’ And I say it just depends on the issue.”

Politicians shift their positions all the time; what’s rare about Heller is how open he is about his makeover. During his campaign last year against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, he dove headlong from the right wing to the center.

On issue after issue — immigration, gun control, taxes, campaign finance reform, even the Affordable Care Act — his current views constitute philosophical whiplash for a politician whose House voting record was much more conservative.

Back in Nevada, observers say that this is, in fact, the real Heller. The one with 100 percent ratings from Americans for Tax Reform, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Eagle Forum, they say, was a necessary detour after his near-death experience in the 2006 race against Angle, a conservative firebrand.

Prior to that, Heller served two terms in the Nevada Assembly followed by two terms as secretary of state, tenures so moderate that top Democrats tried to convert him. In 1993, for instance, Heller was one of just five Republican assemblymen to support repeal of the state’s gay-specific sodomy law. As secretary of state, he rankled many on the right by pushing for — but failing to achieve — same-day voter registration. It was under his direction that Nevada became an early-voting pioneer.

“Maybe now he’s going back to his roots,” said Ray Hagar, a veteran political columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal who has followed Heller’s career since the 1990s. “It’s easy for him to rework those positions because I think at his core, he’s not too far off from that.”

Heller is clearly an adept student of his state’s political climate. He squeezed past the ethics-hobbled Berkley by just 13,000 votes, or less than 1 percentage point, while Nevada chose Obama by 7 points. The senator estimates there were more than 20,000 Obama-Heller ticket splitters in Washoe County — the Reno area that was the core of his congressional district — and knows that margin could easily be jeopardized in 2018 by substantial Hispanic growth and a stronger Democratic challenger.

At the same time, Heller has a blueprint for success in Nevada’s popular first-term Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, an unabashed moderate who seems to grow only stronger politically by ignoring far-right detractors. Heller’s 2012 campaign strategy echoed Sandoval’s. The governor distanced himself from other Republicans on the 2010 ticket and held a victory party separate from them; Heller declined offers from national GOP celebrities to campaign for him in 2012.

Still, his aggressive repositioning is sometimes awkward. Heller now wants to be known as one of the few Republican “pragmatists” — he eschews the word “moderate” — and goes to great lengths to tout Democrats with whom he is co-sponsoring legislation.

To back up his bipartisan bona fides, Heller was the only Republican senator among the 50 members of Congress to join No Labels, a group trying to facilitate cross-aisle dialogue.

Click to enlarge photo

Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Shelley Berkley, candidates for Nevada's U.S. Senate seat, debate on "Ralston Reports" at the KSNV-Channel 3 studios Monday, Oct. 15, 2012.

“Maybe we’re a unique brand,” said Heller, seated beneath an enormous mounted head of an elk he shot in 1996, which he said is among the largest ever felled in his state. “Myself, Susan Collins (of Maine) and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, we’re the three (Republicans) who are most likely to reach over the aisle and work with someone else. If you talk to Jay Rockefeller, if you talk to Jon Tester, if you talk to Joe Manchin, Martin Heinrich — I have good working relationships with all of them.”

Heller cuts a peculiar swath in Congress, especially for someone who claims to hold one of the few potential crossover votes. He’s a barrel-chested 52-year-old former small-town high school football star with an affable smile, a quick wit and a stentorian voice that makes him something out of central casting for senators. Yet, when Hill reporters line up to catch senators coming and going from their weekly caucus lunches on Tuesday, they rarely seek him out for comment.

Indeed, it’s unclear whether Heller actually wants to be a player or just appear to be in play. He said he protested at a GOP meeting when his caucus decided this month to attach yet another effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act to a continuing resolution — he believes the 2012 election settled that question with the American people endorsing Obamacare — but he ended up voting for that repeal effort anyway.

He told Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., he’d support an immigration reform package but is not a part of the Gang of Eight developing the legislation because, Heller said, small working groups exacerbate polarization in Congress and “I avoid gangs.” (He supports the “regular order” of Senate business complete with committee hearings, markups and amendments, he said.)

And he dismissed both Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget and the one introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as “not serious,” saying he’d like to see the Simpson-Bowles plan brought to the floor for debate and amendments. Yet, he also speaks of those who are in the mix as if he were a passive observer.

“Republicans want to reform entitlements. Democrats want to raise taxes. They’ll never come together,” he said. “They’ll never solve the problem, and I believe the only solution is: We have to get the speaker and the president to sit down and talk and solve this problem. I’m not saying we’re insignificant as senators — we have a role to play — but at the end of the day, if Boehner can’t sell it to his conference, we’re going to make no movement.”

Heller did propose a measure to dock lawmakers’ pay until they pass a budget, dubbed No Budget No Pay. And last week, he pitched an amendment to the Senate budget calling on federal agencies to more aggressively audit their books for wasteful spending.

As for the GOP’s demographic issues, Heller isn’t just alert to the need to appease Hispanics; he also worries about harsh GOP rhetoric on women’s issues and notes he was one of seven Republican co-sponsors of the Violence Against Women Act. He earned a zero rating from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League in the House but now crafts a middle ground that is nominally anti-abortion but substantively pro-choice.

“I think Nevada is very libertarian on these issues,” he said. “If I’m pro-life, I think people have to make those decisions for themselves. I think the majority of Nevada is pro-life, but if you want to make that decision for yourself, then you deal with that.”

Heller’s repositioning is understandable to some Nevada conservatives.

“I don’t have that much of a problem with it,” said Ron Futrell, former spokesman for the failed Danny Tarkanian congressional campaign and a contributor to the Breitbart site Big Journalism. “Sharron Angle stuck to her principles and that’s great, but she’s not doing any good for anybody now. Dean Heller’s going to be there on the critical issues for conservatives. He does have a fine line that he has to tread in this state that’s changing rapidly.”

Others are more troubled. Among them is Chuck Muth, a longtime conservative activist who views himself as the state’s enforcer of Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge. (Heller signed the pledge shortly after he was appointed to the Senate in May 2011; in February, he called for the Senate debate on the Simpson-Bowles plan, which includes more than $1 trillion in new revenue.)

“It’s incumbent on him to try to change the minds of the constituency and not simply be a weather vane,” Muth said. “That’s the difference between pragmatism and poor conservative principles. He is not in the ‘minority’ party. He’s in the opposition party. That doesn’t mean you roll over and let the majority party get away with things.”

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  1. Heller has now blocked not one, but two Nevada Federal judge appointments for the same position. And both times, the excuses for blocking these emergency judicial needs for Nevada has been totally lame and unacceptable. The only thing seen by everyone here in Nevada is that he is following the Tea/Republican Party goal of blocking any and all nominations for President Obama and his entire administration. Even if it creates a backlog of cases in Nevada, Heller could care less. He only does what his dumb political party tells him to.

    Heller could make a recommendation for someone to fill that. But he doesn't. Why? Because the desires of the Tea/Republican Party are far more important than what Nevada requires. He only follows partisan politics. Period.

    All Heller is doing is he is stuck in political mode. And I see him trying to deflect attention away from issues, steering the conversation elsewhere to improve his brand. Heller is a political animal. Always has been and always will be.

    If he is so concerned about bi-partisan legislation, then journalists need to ask him about his views about DOMA, same sex marriage, pathway to citizenship immigration, common sense gun safety legislation, and jobs, jobs, jobs. Not one of those subjects will you get a clear answer from him.

    In other words, I don't buy this bi-partisan garbage with Heller. All he is worried about is his political stamina. He squeaked by last election. And he knows he is going to have a hard time squeaking by the next election.

  2. What would YOU do, if YOU were in his position?

    Life is not static, if you are a part of the land of the living, you will change to survive.

    "No Labels" is a good start towards reaching across the aisle working TOGETHER towards a workable solution that will meet the needs of the People in the United States of America. Heller is to be commended for such an effort.

    This "my way or the highway" attitude and mindset that has prevailed with Lawmakers has only led to political gridlock and getting virtually nothing done, including setting budgets, for years now. I wholeheartedly support the "No budget-no pay" measure Heller introduced. It is an accountability wake up call for arrogant Lawmakers. Good!

    Have you met a politician who isn't running for election or reelection? There's no such animal.

    Our country needs to enforce the immigration laws already on the books, fix the glitches to streamline the process, E-Verify all employees, and provide a reasonable means for illegals to earn citizenship (personally, I can only see having closed communities that have industries for them to work and pay for themselves and their families while "going through the process," schools to educate them and their children (ELLs are a MAJOR reason why American schools are bottoming out) and learn the English language, and have government social workers who can guide individuals in securing LEGAL status in our country. Enough is enough, no free passes, no amnesty for those who ILLEGALLY enter, live, and work here in the USA! Our great country is suffering and is harmed each and every day we allow this immigration problem go unaddressed and unresolved.

    Get rid of partisan politics and get the job done people. I strongly believe Heller is doing his level best to get the pressing issues that have plagued our country and its People addressed---and to keep an eye on fixing trouble spots as we go along. That is reasonable.

    Blessings and Peace,

  3. It looks like Sen Heller is positioning himself for a possible run for the presidency plus his next Senatorial election if necessary.

    I never object to anyone including our elected officials changing their mind, that's a prerogative that should be protected for all, but I do think he needs to be asked to explain his reasoning and be challenged on it if need be.

    His main duty of course is to represent his constituency and depending on public opinion on these issues he may be doing that. If change is for political purposes then both the changes and Sen Heller lose legitimacy for continued service.

    I like a thinker and abhor a flim flam man (woman), we have too many of those now including POTUS and the Senate Majority Leader. Neither has been honest or forthright choosing instead partisan politics, scheming and on occasion deliberate misstatements. Knowingly stating what the audience du Jour or the moment seems to demand has been all too acceptable for both. They're not the only ones or only party now or in the past, but they are who we have to deal with for the time being and the ones controlling our national agenda.

  4. Nevada's libertarian, "live and let live" credo was destroyed by local talk radio "do-gooders" a few years back when a constitutional amendment was placed on the ballot more than once to enshrine bigotry against gay people. Heller's predecessor Ensign got sucked into the machine...and you saw how well that worked out for "sanctity of marriage" John Ensign. Even the Republican governor of the state Jim Gibbons got sucked in. Fine example of a great spokesman for family values HE was. So now we've got 2 decent family men Heller and Heck who appear to care more about the everyday lives of their constituents and they're doomed to the legacy of the party's recent past. Their national party is an embarrassment. Recognizing a pathway to citizenship with boarder security and marriage equality for Nevadans who have committed to each other for many years but are denied equality under the law are 2 issues that they could lead on. Don't hold your breath or pleasently surprise me. Which one will it be.

  5. E-mail and/or call your Congressman.............ESPECIALLY IF YOUR CONGRESSMAN IS A REPUBLICAN...........and tell him or her NO to ANY Amnesty.

    Some type of amnesty probably will be passed in the Senate.......however the House of Representatives is a different story where the Republicans are the majority. THE REPUBLICANS will decide the issue.....for or against it (For you partisan types this is just the facts). 99% of Democrats are for legalization so pounding the Republicans is the only way to stop it.

    ANYTHING THAT ALLOWS ILLEGALS TO STAY AND WORK PERMANENTLY IN THE U.S. IS AMNESTY! That's all you have to say. Don't worry how well you write or speak. All that matters is that the clowns hear from a lot of people. If a lot of people complain they get nervous. That means........YOU!

    Here's how to find out who your reps are and their e-mail addresses: contactingthecongress