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Heller Pursues Bipartisanship With an Eye on 2012

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).

“It’s no surprise that Dean Heller suddenly remembered it’s an election year and is now desperately trying to distance himself from his unpopular pro-Wall Street, anti-middle class agenda. However, you can’t uncast votes, and we’ll make sure Nevada voters remember who the real Dean Heller is come Election Day,” said Zac Petkanas, a senior adviser to the Nevada Democratic Party and a former Reid aide.

Besides the Democratic balanced budget amendment proposal, Heller has supported Democratic legislation in the Senate on at least seven other occasions.

Heller’s bipartisanship in the Senate has leaned toward the pragmatic. He joined with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on a bill to withhold Members’ pay unless the budget and appropriations bills are approved; introduced legislation co-sponsored by six Democrats to repatriate the remains of sailors killed in 1804 in what is now Libya; and co-authored a bill with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to increase criminal penalties for using ultralight aircraft to smuggle drugs.

But his Monday statement on the payroll tax cut showed a willingness to take on his own party in some instances.

“The American people deserve long-term, forward-thinking policies. However, there is no reason to hold up the short-term extension while a more comprehensive deal is being worked out. What is playing out in Washington, DC this week is about political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people,” Heller said in the statement.

Heller broke more with his own party in the House on issues such as extending unemployment benefits, prescription drug reimportation, stem-cell research and federal penalties for gasoline price gouging. Additionally, Heller worked across the aisle with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.).

Democrats contend that Heller’s record won’t obscure his two votes for the controversial Medicare reform plan authored by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Heller voted for it once in the House and then again in the Senate, and Democrats view it as a major vulnerability. Berkley and her allies also intend to hit Heller for votes to maintain subsidies to oil companies and to block the nomination of Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Additionally, Democrats are likely to dredge up Heller’s voting record in the Nevada Legislature, which includes votes that could be interpreted as pro-abortion-rights and choosing not to block tax increases.

“These issues are going to be a problem for him. We’re going to hit him on it,” said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The notion that he has a principled conservative record is just not true.”

Heller’s camp countered by saying Berkley is on the wrong side of the issues that will matter the most to voters in November 2012 — Obama’s health care law, the 2009 stimulus package, cap-and-trade energy legislation and jobs.

Republican strategists also tout Heller’s ability to accrue the voter support needed for success in Southern Nevada, Berkley’s base, compared to what they view as the Congresswoman’s inability to garner the backing she needs in Northern Nevada, the Senator’s base. Mike Slanker, based in Las Vegas and Heller’s chief political strategist, said Berkley’s Congressional voting record is in “lock step” with Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and “would be her demise.”

“She has never had to answer to the voters on these issues in her seven terms running without a real challenge in a 25-point Democrat district. Democrats would have been smarter to recruit a moderate — not a lock step liberal whose record just won’t sell statewide,” Slanker said.

Reid is expected to be influential in the race. The Nevada Democrat’s Senate majority is resting on just four seats, and he has already moved to aid Berkley — through fundraising for the Congresswoman and discouraging K Street operatives from donating to Heller. Republicans concede that Reid’s role in the contest can’t be dismissed as inconsequential but say that ultimately the campaign will be about Berkley and Heller.

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