Immigration Testimony Revives a Senate Soap Opera
There are 27 states where the attorney general is a Republican, and 22 of them have signed on to the lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama’s effort to limit deportations. But only one of them is being ushered under the national spotlight Wednesday morning as the single elected official asked to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on “the unconstitutionality of President Obama’s executive overreach.”
Curiously, he’s been in office for less than two months and his state was the most recent to join the litigation, which has become this winter’s newest pivot point in the increasingly acrimonious balance-of-power battle over immigration policy. But almost nothing happens at the Capitol by happenstance, so there are a couple of readily apparent reasons why Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt would have been chosen as the star witness of the day.
His special pedigree — he’s the most prominent politician in America with a father and grandfather who were both in the Senate, a story that’s been known for only two years — is at least tangential to the rationale for his selection.
Most obviously, Nevada is in the center of the immigration debate because undocumented immigrants make up a larger share of its population — an estimated 8 percent — than in any other state. So Laxalt has a front-row seat for watching how state and local governments handle the influx, and in his prepared testimony he laments that Obama’s moves, designed to shield from deportation more than 4 million immigrants living in the country illegally, “will impose millions of dollars in direct increased costs on the states.”
That’s the pretty straightforward policy rationale for Laxalt’s appearance. The political reason (not to mention the soap operatic back story) is much more interesting.
Republicans are searching feverishly for a big-name, money-magnet 2016 candidate for the Senate in Nevada now that it’s almost certain Gov. Brian Sandoval will not be running regardless of whether Minority Leader Harry Reid follows through with his declarations that a severely injured right eye hasn’t dissuaded him from seeking a sixth term.
The conventional wisdom is that, having won his first bid for elective office only four months ago — and by fewer than 4,900 votes despite solid fundraising and a big GOP year — the 36-year-old Laxalt is probably not totally ready for statewide prime time. (He’s already broken some GOP china at the state capital in Carson City by signing onto the states’ lawsuit against Obama without giving so much as a heads-up to Sandoval.) It’s also the case that Nevada’s other senator, Republican Dean Heller, has been working to entice into next year’s Senate race three others who all have significant state government and legislative experience.
But if Laxalt aspires to become a viable member of the GOP field, his time in the House Judiciary hot seat will be something akin to an audition. He could help, or hurt, his reputation considerably with his performance — especially if the panel’s Democrats engage him in a debate about executive powers versus legislative powers under the Constitution (the lofty-sounding proxy for the bare-knuckled fight at hand over Obama’s domestic policy legacy).
Even without the high policy and political stakes, Laxalt can expect to face a small throng of discreet oglers when he enters the Judiciary hearing room — entirely because of the exceptional personal story he represents.
Laxalt is much more than a member of the metaphorical Capitol Hill family, though he did put in time as a junior-level Senate staffer after law school and before a five-year stint as a Navy prosecutor.
He is the son of Michelle Laxalt, a well-connected Washington lobbyist and sometimes TV pundit, and the namesake grandson of Paul Laxalt, now 92, a Nevada governor in the 1960s who rose to be the No. 5 Republican appropriator during two terms in the Senate, from 1975 through 1986.
But the identity of the younger Laxalt’s father was only made public in February 2013: He is Pete V. Domenici, who chaired the Budget Committee for a dozen of his 36 years as a Republican senator from New Mexico, which ended in 2008. (Now 82 and in fragile health, he lives on Capitol Hill with his wife, Nancy, the mother of eight of his children.)
Michelle Laxalt described conceiving her son as “one night’s mistake” at the end of 1977, a time when Domenici and Paul Laxalt were first-termers assigned to neighboring seats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But in the following decade, they were companions in the topmost ranks of GOP congressional negotiating forces — standing side by side in the Rose Garden at the shoulder of President Ronald Reagan in 1984, for example, when a major bipartisan deficit-reduction deal was unveiled.
The younger Laxalt was reared by his mother, without his dad’s involvement, in Alexandria, Va. Both parents said they hoped to keep their secret forever, but felt compelled to go public after learning the story was about to be reported elsewhere. Domenici apologized for his behavior — but that was not enough to suit Reid, who has declared his former colleague persona non grata at the Capitol. (The two had been allies in the Senate, working together mainly to boost federal spending on irrigation in the West, but Reid has become much closer personally to the elder Laxalt, even though they were once intense rivals in Nevada politics.)
If he makes it to Congress some day, Nevada’s attorney general would have a lineage apparently unique in the institution’s history. Capitol historians say they know of no current or former member so closely related to other members on both sides of his family. (The best they could come up with was former Senate GOP Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, who died last June; his father, stepmother, first father-in-law and second wife all served in Congress.)
Before even thinking about trying to join such exalted company, however, Nevada’s new attorney general has some preliminary business to attend to in 2141 Rayburn.