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The lonely alien of Congress
Story by Jon Ralston
In a hyperpartisan age and a tough Congressional district, coming up with actual ideas can be fraught with peril.
Joe Heck frustrates Democrats. They want him to be a Tea Partier. But he’s not. They want him to be a frothing right-winger. But he’s not. They want him to be anti-immigration reform. But he’s not.
And it is on this last point that the Republican congressman’s political enemies are most thwarted as they, especially his Democratic opponent, Erin Bilbray, try to get traction. The cookie-cutter attacks employed by both party committees and then channeled through candidates have been flowing for months. And immigration, with its emotional tug and incendiary rhetoric, lends itself like few others to the small-mindedness and small-heartedness of political campaigns. As Heck faces re-election, it’s interesting to watch what seems to be a serious and engaged legislator grapple with tough issues — in a hyperpartisan environment in a critical swing district where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, seemingly damned no matter what.
Heck, who was recently judged by The National Journal to be a moderate (sorry, Democrats), has caused some of his own problems. He’s an analytical workhorse — I’m not sure any other member of the Gang of 535 has read the entire Affordable Care Act, much less the Senate and House immigration bills. But his own rhetoric and approach often appear to be insensitive or arrogant, mostly because he is so matter-of-fact. For instance, he used to use the term “anchor babies” to refer to immigrants born in this country to undocumented parents. (Joe Heck hates kids who are illegal through no fault of their own!) And he voted for an amendment by Iowa anti-reform zealot Steve King to override the president’s executive action to not deport the so-called DREAMers. (Joe Heck hates young people who want to stay here!)
Heck, who now talks about “birthright citizenship,” is quite circumspect, even evasive, on the subject. “It is worthy of a debate,” he told me in a recent interview, saying what politicians generally say when they don’t want to take an unpopular position. Then he added, “We are one of two or three industrialized nations that continue to offer (automatic) citizenship.” On siding with the rabid King, I wondered if Heck, who has cited the principle of stopping Obama from overstepping his executive authority, considered that this amendment actually could result in the deportation of young people desperate to fulfill the American Dream. “I do not cast votes based on being pummeled by political opponents,” he answered. “The president had the House and the Senate for two years and squandered that time. So two months before the election, he throws a bone to the Hispanic community. That is usurping the authority of Congress.”
Heck may well be right, but the politics of this are awful for him. And yet, his willingness to meet with potentially adversarial groups and his drafting his own immigration reform bill have helped him keep reasonably high numbers for a Republican among Hispanics. A Review-Journal poll during his last race showed Heck at 41 percent with Hispanics, and his folks tell me he consistently scores in the high 30s and low 40s. Granted, his 2012 foe, John Oceguera, was a disaster. But even in recent times, Heck has done all he could to shun the anti-reform label the Democrats so want to affix to him. Heck chafes at the notion that he is a Johnny come-lately to immigration reform, that he is now engaged in the issue because he is up for re-election against a presumably better opponent who will have the full-throated support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and national women’s groups. He correctly points out that he began talking about the issue in the previous Congress. But you also can’t ignore that nearly a quarter of his district is Hispanic and Asian, and he cannot miss the political imperatives, especially as House GOP leaders have made his life more difficult in his swing district.
Heck is not the kind of congressman who grabs his chance at two-minute floor speeches to make a political point, so he hasn’t been out there publicly hectoring the leadership on immigration. But in October, when he came out with a jarring statement, it spoke volumes: “It’s extremely frustrating and very disappointing to hear reports that the House does not plan on voting on immigration reform legislation this year,” he said. “This is yet another example of the leadership vacuum in Washington that rightly has so many people frustrated with this dysfunctional Congress.”
[HEAR MORE: What’s the future of immigration reform? Hear a discussion on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
Accidents rarely happen in politics. And this was not one. Those close to Heck say, as one insider told me, “He actually believes in it and thinks there is a leadership void on the issue as both sides posture and no one actually is willing to make progress. He is stepping out, a calculated risk, to see if he can help break the gridlock.” That is either Pollyanna, naïveté or crap. But soon afterward, Heck was meeting with groups and proposing his own plan instead of one of the measures Democrats insist he support: the Senate version, backed even by Dean Heller, or the House analogue, known as HR 15.
Similarly, I’m sure he gave it no thought — until he was called on it — that using the term “anchor babies” might be insensitive. But Heck is nothing if not a quick study, having learned his lesson and readily pivoting to more politically correct terminology. He soldiers on like the soldier he is, seizing opportunities if his opponents make mistakes to shred them, always as well-informed as any of his interlocutors, having done his homework.
If you ask Heck why he did not support the Senate immigration bill or HR 15, he will launch into a disquisition showing you he has read the measures. He opposed the Senate bill because of its “weak border provisions” and because senators larded it with “pet projects.” It was 1,300 pages by the time it was done — and you get the sense Heck read every one. As for HR 15, Heck says it is “basically the Senate bill,” with the same border security problems. But what really irks Heck is when Democrats — and journalists — refer to the House approach as piecemeal because the leaders won’t pass either of those other measures. “I take exception with the word ‘piecemeal,’” Heck says. “It’s actually a deliberative process. You don’t need a 1,300-page bill.” So Heck himself has created a measure, which so far remains in the netherworlds of his own computer for lack of support, that is essentially a scaled-back DREAM Act. But it would provide a path to citizenship, which doesn’t fit the narrative his political enemies want to etch for the campaign. Heck hawked his measure to a variety of local groups last November and then later in Congress, but it is going nowhere. So his foes are pummeling Heck for not introducing his bill or not talking to top leadership about the measure.
Heck insisted that “there has been a lot of movement” within the caucus and that the “goal is to build a groundswell in conference, see who we can get and who we can’t count on.” Heck claimed that he “speaks as often as I can” to members and tries to “get five minutes wherever possible to push my priorities, just as any member does.” But, he conceded, he was “more optimistic last fall than I am today because quite honestly, now it becomes much more about politics than it is about policy as we get closer to the election.”
You don’t say. Here’s a perfect example: When House Speaker John Boehner was in Las Vegas in January, Heck told me, he did not talk to the speaker about immigration, even as he was being hectored by the Democrats to do so. Why not? Because, Heck said, it just didn’t come up during Boehner’s Vegas sojourn. What? The outrage! He had the House speaker here and did not lobby him. The congressman must not care that much about the issue, after all.
When he hears that — and he will — I bet that will frustrate Joe Heck.
Jon Ralston’s political program “Ralston Reports” airs weekdays at 6:30 p.m. on KSNV Channel 3. He covers politics at ralstonreports.com.
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