Published Monday, May 9, 2011 | 10:28 a.m.
Updated Monday, May 9, 2011 | 2:37 p.m.
When Dean Heller first sauntered over to the Senate side of the Capitol last week for a policy lunch with his soon-to-be colleagues, he insisted to reporters that his politics wouldn’t change, just because he was changing titles.
Now that he’s officially been sworn in as Nevada’s 25th senator, it appears he’s keeping his word.
Heller took the oath of Senate office at about 2:15 p.m. Monday Eastern time, in a ceremony on the Senate floor conducted by Vice President Joe Biden.
Within minutes, he’d taken his first official action as a senator: signing on to Sen. Mike Lee of Utah’s push to adopt a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, a bill that the other 46 Republicans in the Senate have also signed onto as co-sponsors.
“I think that’s probably the most important issue facing this country right now,” Heller said after announcing he had co-sponsored the measure. “The biggest threat to our country right now is our debt.”
The balanced budget amendment bill isn’t expected to win any floor time from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is lining up a series of other budget-focused bills that Heller appears to have long been anticipating.
First will be a vote on the fiscal 2012 budget designed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, which Heller already supported when it came up for a vote in the House, but which Democrats are hungry to get Republicans on record as being in favor of as many times as possible before election day.
That’s because in the Ryan budget is a revamping of the national Medicare system that would convert the present government-run insurance program into an scaled voucher-esque subsidy system for anyone younger than 55 -- a program that Heller’s anticipated challenger for the Senate, House Democrat Shelley Berkley, has said would bring about “the end of Medicare as we know it.”
Heller isn’t going on the defensive about his support for the Ryan budget, though.
“I don’t want to raise taxes, I don’t want to ration health care, I don’t want to take money away from Medicare,” he said Monday after his swearing-in. “The Ryan budget puts half a trillion dollars back into Medicare and that’s why I support it.”
Another upcoming issue that’s expected to pit Reid and Heller on diametrically opposite sides of the fiscal debate is the eventual vote on the budget ceiling. The Treasury Department revised its earlier estimates last week on when the country was likely to crash into the debt ceiling, pushing out the doomsday date from mid-May to early August. If that happens, it would look much like a government shutdown, with the added bonus of the country defaulting on its debts, which could create an economic domino effect worldwide.
Republicans, knowing it’s a necessary vote, are taking the opportunity to play some serious hardball with their demands for cuts. House Speaker John Boehner said last week he wants to see cuts in the “trillions” before the country raises its debt limit.
Heller appears to be hinting at the same hard line.
“I haven’t decided yet ... but it’ll be very, very difficult for me to vote for it,” he said Monday afternoon. “I’m not saying that I’m not. But it’s going to be very, very difficult for me to vote for raising the debt ceiling.”
But for the most part, those forthcoming faceoffs between Republicans and Democrats were tabled Monday, as Heller and top Senate Republicans shook hands and linked arms with Reid and Biden during Heller’s swearing-in to the Senate.
No cameras were allowed into the chamber for the official ceremony except those that were running for C-SPAN; thus pictures are from a re-enactment of the swearing-in ceremony that took place in the Old Senate Chamber of the Capitol minutes after the official ceremony was done.
During the actual moment, Heller wore a black suit with a red-and-gold striped tie, set off with an American flag pin. He and his family arrived in the Senate chamber early, shortly after his resignation from the House officially took effect at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time.
Heller’s family, including his wife, Lynne, and his four children Emily, 15; Drew, 21; Harris, 22; and Hilary, 25, who attended with her husband, Eddie Ableser, 33; took seats in the gallery of the Senate chamber in the front row, overlooking the Republican side.
Heller maintained a perma-grin on his face as he chatted with National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn on the floor for about 10 minutes before others began to file into the chamber for the ceremony -- a hint of how important the relationship between the two is going to be in the 18 months ahead. Because the Democrats’ majority margin in the Senate is so tight, Heller’s seat could be the difference between Reid retaining his leader position.
Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, all came to witness Heller’s swearing-in, as did Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico, who had a long chat with Heller as they waited for Biden to arrive.
When Biden did arrive, Reid, who looked a bit worse for wear with his arm still in a sling and a dark red welt above his left eye from last week’s fall in the rain, went to the center doors to escort Heller to the Senate president’s desk to take the oath. The dynamic between them was politely friendly, but not too chummy: Reid and Heller exchanged grins before the ceremony started and a solid handshake after, but few words.
With his right hand raised and his left hand at his side, Heller stared intently and almost unblinkingly at Biden as he read the oath of office from a laminated card. After swearing to uphold his office, Heller’s face immediately broke into an even wider grin, which remained in place as he vigorously shook hands with Biden, McConnell, Kyl, and others, signed the Senate register, and performed his first official act: lending Lee his name to add to the list of balanced budget amendment boosters.
He said, shortly after the ceremony, that the experience was “very humbling,” and that if there was one Nevada senator whose shoes he hoped to emulate and fill, it would be former Republican Senator Paul Laxalt -- who was in Washington a few months ago serving as Reid’s escort during his swearing-in as majority leader for the 112th Senate.
“I’m a big, big fan of Senator Laxalt,” Heller said. “In fact, Laxalt and I went to the same high school -- not at the same time -- but to me, that means a lot to be able to serve here in the senate after someone of his stature.”
So as of about 2:15 p.m., Nevada has had a new senator -- which means as of about 2:30 p.m., the campaign to unseat him was fully under way.
It didn’t really start with Reid, who has thrown a bit of a verbal gauntlet at Heller in recent weeks, saying publicly that Heller’s going to have to learn how to serve the people of Southern Nevada, who don’t know him well, if he plans to be an effective senator.
His official statement hinted a calm reminder of that Monday afternoon. “I welcome Dean Heller to the United States Senate,” Reid said. “As Dean transitions from representing a single district to the entire state, I look forward to working with him to make the tough choices that will help our state and our citizens recover.”
Nevada Democrats, on the other hand, reserved nothing.
“Today, Dean Heller will bring his anti-jobs, anti-seniors agenda to the United States Senate. After voting to destroy thousands of Nevada clean energy jobs and to end Medicare as we know it in order to pay for billions of government giveaways to Big Oil, Dean Heller has a lot of explaining to do to his new constituents,” said Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Zach Hudson. "Nevada voters have a clear choice in this election between Shelley Berkley's commitment to job creation and appointed Senator Dean Heller's record of standing up for Big Oil executives at the expense of out-of-work Nevadans and Medicare recipients."
The question that won’t be answered for another eighteen months though, is what Heller’s next year and a half of incumbency will mean for his race now to retain the seat in the general election.
Republicans, most importantly Heller and NRSC chair Cornyn, have been confident since even before Governor Brian Sandoval appointed Heller to fill out the rest of former Sen. John Ensign’s term that he would be able to hold on to the seat for the Republican party. But Democrats still think the Heller-Berkley race is their best chance to pick up a seat in the Senate.
Berkley, for her part, said last week she’s expecting Heller’s appointment will give him a short-term bump in the polls, but not something she can’t overcome in the long term.
“I believe in me,” she said. “I know I can do this.”