Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 5:07 p.m.
Democratic Senate hopeful Shelley Berkley has been seizing every pulpit available in recent weeks to pummel Republican Sen. Dean Heller for supporting a fiscal 2012 budget that would make some significant long-term changes to Medicare.
But this week, with the Senate voting on the proposal, she’s dramatically ratcheting up her usual diatribe: accusing Heller not just of taking a political position she disagrees with, but doing so because it benefits campaign donors.
“Dean wants to end Medicare as we know it and give billions more in wasteful subsidies to his big oil campaign contributors,” Berkley told reporters Monday.
It’s an accusation based on a political equation Democrats have been selling lately: that preserving tax breaks for large oil companies is the direct trade-off for maintaining Medicare, and President Barack Obama’s health care law, unchanged.
It’s a philosophical argument, based on timing: Congress is grappling with a budget crisis, and the only legislative proposal on the table to address it is a Republican plan to save more than $6 trillion over the next decade that, among other things, significantly amends the soon-to-be-cash-poor Medicare program. Democratic leaders have countered that if the aim is to save money, the country should start by ending $2 billion in annual tax write-offs to the largest oil companies — and that changes to Medicare, though eventually necessary, can wait.
But Berkley’s accusation pulls another element of the political process into question: whether the behind-the-scenes relationships and friendships between politicians and lobbyists are just that, or mired in the business of political quid pro quo.
Heller’s votes on oil, and Medicare, on the face of it, don’t appear to be for sale just because he’s facing a close Senate election race. Heller said recently that he would be “proud” to be the only member of Congress to vote twice for the House budget chairman’s fiscal 2012 proposal, a distinction he earned this afternoon when he voted in favor of it a second time — once in the House, where it passed, and once in the Senate, where it didn’t. When it comes to oil companies, Heller has voted against repealing subsidies unflinchingly consistently because, as he explains it, he’s against raising corporate taxes, period.
While Heller does receive some campaign contributions from oil and gas industries, they don’t break the top 10 list of his chief backers. Over the first four years of his congressional career, Heller pulled in almost $90,000 from oil and gas companies; a little less than a quarter of what top recipient Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, for example, received over the same period.
But he has been feted by some of the industry’s biggest lobbyists lately. On his second day as a senator, a group of lobbyists, including former Nevada Rep. Jon Porter, held a $500-$5,000 per-head fundraiser for Heller at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. On the selective list of hosts was Alpine Group lobbyist Bob Brooks, who works an $80,000 lobbying contract for BP PLC, or BP, one of the five big oil companies in the U.S. that Democrats are hoping to target in their campaign.
Brooks’ portfolio with Alpine — a firm that employs other lobbyists who have hosted campaign events for Berkley in recent months — is broad, and BP isn’t even his biggest contract. But he’s been known around D.C. for that connection since BP’s well in the Gulf caused thecountry’s worst oil spill crisis on record last year. (Interestingly enough, it was revealed then that BP’s biggest lobbying target was President Obama, who started this whole push to end the subsidies months ago.)
Brooks wasn’t the sole lobbying sponsor of Heller’s reception: The list was a round robin of D.C. outfits, including PACs representing air and defense contracting giant Boeing and the automotive industry, lobbyists representing real estate interests, and an old friend from Nevada who now works on behalf of the casino industry, Porter. Brooks and Heller also go back a ways: He was, before his days as a lobbyist, chief of staff to former Republican Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the office from which Heller’s current chief of staff also hails, and has personally donated to Heller’s campaign going back a few years.
Heller’s office responded to Berkley’s characterization of his professional relationship with donors as lying to gain cheap political points.
“It is sad that the only thing Shelley Berkley has offered the people of Nevada since her announcement is baseless negative and false attacks,” said Stewart Bybee, communications director for Heller. “Wasn’t she elected to actually do a job? Instead she’s spending most of her time attacking Dean Heller.
“And with the cost of gas off the charts, you’d think Shelley and her liberal leadership might actually let companies drill for oil in this country rather than tie their hands as she has done,” he continued.
“Congresswoman Berkley seems to forget that she’s not running against Dean Heller. She’s running against Byron Georgiou for the Democratic nomination,” added Brian Walsh, communications director for the NRSC. “But whomever the nominee ultimately is, we look forward to debating their support for Obamacare, which cut Medicare by $500 billion and raised taxes on Nevada small businesses.”
With little hope that either the oil bills the Senate voted on last week, or the Republican budget proposal it voted down this week, will become law, Congress’ current business does seem all but entirely focused on an election that’s still almost 18 months away. That’s so far away that most states don’t even know who will be running in the party primaries, much less the general election.
Not so in Nevada. Though Berkley is facing a dedicated primary challenger and one could yet crop up for Heller, most in the political establishment believe the field is going to narrow to a close general election slug-out between Berkley and Heller.
Berkley’s choice to tear out of the starting gate with a relentless cannonade of campaign lobs against Heller does raise the question of whether she can keep this pace up for what’s likely to be the longest marathon of all the national-level elections, especially since Democrats have named Heller their No. 1 Senate pickoff target for 2012.
So far, her early-and-often efforts haven’t given her an advantage in the polls.
And her party seems to think they’ve got a recipe that works, and that Berkley can keep the momentum going.
As evidence, they’re trumpeting a race in New York’s 26th congressional district in upstate New York, where Democrat Kathy Hochul pulled off a major upset against Republican Jane Corwin for a seat that, save for during the Clinton years, has been held by Republicans since the early 1950s.
“Republicans were expected to win, but everything changed once that conversation turned to Medicare,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray told reporters this morning before the vote, rattling the N.Y.-26 win as a warning to Republicans supportive of the House proposal, especially the senator who “said he’d be proud to vote for it twice” (a reference to Heller, though she didn’t mention his name).
“So I’m confident that Senate Democrats will be able to win office in races across the country by remaining focused on Republican efforts to end Medicare in order to pay for 30 percent tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations, and enabling current billions in tax subsidies for oil companies.”