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Heller Pursues Bipartisanship With an Eye on 2012

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Dean Heller joined with the nonpartisan group No Labels last week in calling for reforms to make Congress less partisan and more functional. The GOP Senator has made it a habit to pick strategic moments to work with Democrats. This tactic seems designed to help him statewide in Nevada in a competitive Senate race.

Dean Heller has carved out a more pragmatic voting record than might have been expected for an appointed Republican Senator whose Nevada primary is still six months away.

On Monday, he was one of a handful of Senate Republicans to put pressure on the House to pass a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, after House Republicans threatened to scuttle a measure that overwhelmingly passed the Senate, 89-10, on Saturday. And last week, Heller was the only Republican to vote for a Democratic-sponsored balanced budget amendment proposal; he also supported the GOP plan.

Heller recently joined with the nonpartisan group No Labels in calling for process reforms designed to make Congress less partisan and more functional. This has been Heller’s pattern since accepting Gov. Brian Sandoval’s appointment to the Senate in April, although he voted similarly during his five-plus years in the House.

“My voting record’s pretty darn conservative,” Heller said in an interview with Roll Call. “I want to be a little bit more pragmatic about the way to get work done here. The problem isn’t as much policy around here as it is process.”

Heller appears unlikely to face a primary challenge from the right in June. But given the strength the tea party in Nevada exhibited in 2010, it is not outside the realm of possibility that one will emerge.

Heller’s voting record is in step with his party, according to statistics compiled by Congressional Quarterly. From 2007 to 2010, the Nevada Republican received an average 89 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, while voting with the GOP more than 92 percent of the time. But he has made it a habit to pick strategic moments to work with Democrats — a tactic that seems designed to help him statewide in Nevada in a targeted Senate race.

In the state, Democrats hold a voter-registration edge of 42 percent to 36 percent, and the party maintains a significant advantage in political machinery thanks to ground-game efforts of President Barack Obama, who won the state in 2008, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who defied the odds to win re-election in 2010.

Democratic strategists argue that Heller’s legislative record is one of defensive inconsistency and will prove fatal in the Senate race against Rep. Shelley Berkley (D).

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