Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
WASHINGTON — After four years of playing heavy defense, Republicans will get a long-awaited shot at driving their policy goals through Congress starting today at noon, when new lawmakers are sworn in and the GOP takes over the House majority.
The party flip is causing a rejiggering of priorities and power balances all over Capitol Hill, as Republicans hit the ground running with their rollback agenda. First strikes: the health care bill — GOP leaders have scheduled a vote on repeal for next week — and a series of austerity measures to cut in-House spending and reduce the number of work days lawmakers spend in Washington.
With Tea Party enthusiasm swinging at full tilt, that’s likely to just be the beginning. Incoming anti-spending hawks have already said they want to see reductions in spending across the board, taking the federal budget back to 2008 levels and keeping the debt ceiling in place — even if that ruins the country’s credit rating.
All of that will push the dean of Nevada’s delegation partially out of his tenure as Congressional policy architect, and into a role as political guard dog — for the President, the Democrats in Congress, and the laws they passed in the last few years.
We’ll be “the cooling vessel for the heat of the House of Representatives,” Senate Majority Leader Reid said in a recent interview. They’re going to send us stuff, they’re going to bundle it up and send it over here by the truckload. We just file it — we’re going to do nothing with most of it.”
But Reid’s not the only Nevada lawmaker who will find himself in a potentially critical policy role. Nevada’s newest member of Congress, Joe Heck, will also be bridging a gap of sorts: between the hard-charging Tea Party-infused freshman class, and the top GOP brass.
For now, the two appear to be in lockstep. But whether that relationship will persist beyond the opening few months is not so certain.
The opening fights — health care, budget reduction, personal austerity — are easy political votes for the GOP, whose members, new and old, campaigned on anti-Obama policy, anti-spending platforms in the 2010 midterm election. (Also, those votes that are on policy items — as opposed to rules — are also not expected to gain enough traction in the Senate to actually go anywhere.)
Boosterism may begin to break down in the spring, when Congress has to address the debt ceiling. The U.S. can’t continue to borrow money from foreign governments without Congressional approval, but the Tea Party faithful are loath to give the government permission to go further into the hole.
But not raising the debt ceiling has consequences that are unpalatable to the seasoned members of the GOP. Failing to do so means the United States will default on certain loans which will in turn ruin the nation’s top-level credit rating — the classification that makes the country eligible for affordable loan rates.
It also jeopardizes the lawmakers’ ability to keep their promises on political behemoths like taxes. The two-year patch on tax policy Congress passed in the late days of December means tax policy will come up for review during the 112th Congress — and keeping rates low gets expensive when you’re thinking about the deficit.
Heck, who was not available for an interview, hasn’t yet stated where he sits on those issues. But as one of only three freshman members of Congress appointed to serve on Speaker John Boehner’s steering committee — the GOP’s House council of sorts — and the only one of that trio to also serve on Boehner’s select committee on Intelligence, it’s Heck who is best poised of all members of Congress to parley the ambitions of the freshmen to the will of the leaders, and back.
So does that mean all eyes are on Reid and Heck? Likely not. In the grand scheme of Nevada politics, the kleig lights are actually more likely to focus on the three remaining members of the state delegation.
In the House, Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley both sit on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where the real work to parse through changes to the health care and tax and unemployment laws will take place once the opening vote to repeal Obama’s health care law has been concluded.
In the Senate, John Ensign has aligned himself with the most ascetic of the anti-spending crusaders, and as such, may emerge as one of the Tea Party’s best partner voices at the pulpit on the Senate side for spending reduction.
It doesn’t detract from the drama either that those three are presently considered the most likely candidates to face off in the 2012 race for the Senate seat presently occupied by Ensign, who spent the bulk of the last Congress trying to shake off the shadow of a personal scandal (he’s been partially successful; but a Senate ethics investigation remains).