Reps. Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley cast votes Friday on the fiscal 2012 budget blueprint written by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and endorsed by the House GOP leadership.
They of course split on the vote in a House that is badly divided on fiscal issues. Heller voted for the Republican budget and Berkley voted against it. On an alternative offered by Democrats, Berkley voted for it and Heller voted against it.
But with both Heller and Berkley now declared candidates, and perceived frontrunners, for the general election to U.S. Senate next year, their votes also provoked a flurry of attack press releases from both sides.
The clash was a sign of the stakes involved in what figures to be a hyper-competitive Nevada race, one of a handful that could determine which party controls the Senate in 2013.
It also showed that the so-called "Ryan budget" will likely be one of the battlefield issues in campaigns in Nevada and elsewhere, particularly its call for sweeping changes in Medicare and Medicaid. Even though, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, it "will never pass the Senate."
The GOP budget aims to cut borrowing by $6 trillion over 10 years through spending reductions and in part by converting Medicaid into a block grant program and by turning Medicare from an open-ended funding program into one where beneficiaries would be given an annual stipend to buy health insurance of their choice beginning in 2022.
Medicare has emerged as the fulcrum in this debate. Republicans say the cost growth of the health program for the elderly will prove a heavier and heavier drag on the economy where the current federal deficit is $1.3 trillion. Medicare must be reformed to keep it available for future retirees, Republicans say, and they characterize their plan for a "premium support system" as a grown-up response.
“The federal government must stop spending money we don’t have," Heller said Friday. "Our national debt will serve as an anchor that drags down the economic opportunity of our children and grandchildren.
"The choices are clear, we can continue with the status quo which leads to bigger government, higher taxes, less jobs, and rationed health care for our seniors or we can decrease government spending, create jobs, and preserve Medicare for future generations while making no changes for current recipients," he said.
But Democrats see hardship ahead for the elderly, and they sense a huge political opportunity in framing the debate into one in which they charge Republicans want to "end Medicare as we know it."
Berkley pointed to a Congressional Budget Office analysis that said "most elderly people would pay more for their health care than they would pay under the current Medicare system."
“The facts are in and the findings make clear that retirees in Nevada and across our nation will be hit with higher health care costs under the Republican budget proposal. Instead of finding ways to make care for seniors affordable, this budget will actually force retirees to pay even more out of their own pockets for medications, doctor visits and for other health-related needs," Berkley said Friday.
But that was just the start.
With Berkley as the newly minted Democratic establishment candidate for Senate, party organs including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Nevada Democratic Party rushed out with attacks on Heller.
"Unbelievable! Dean Heller votes to end Medicare," the DSCC headlined its release. "The Heller/GOP budget would be a disastrous for Nevada senior citizens," added Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democrats.
“It’s about what we have come to expect," responded Mike Slanker, Heller's lead campaign consultant. "The attack is of course over the top and false."
At the same time Republicans swiped at Berkley.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee offered mock congratulations to Berkley for casting a vote on the budget, calling attention to her missed vote early last Saturday to keep the government running, and several others last Friday, when she was in New York for a family meeting.
"Not surprisingly, liberal Berkley opposed the GOP budget proposal to rein in Washington’s runaway spending and bring our nation’s debt problem under control," the Republicans said.
Speaking on Berkley's behalf, Hudson said, "This attack reeks of desperation."
There are 18 months until Election Day 2012, and no sign but that war for U.S. Senate from Nevada is going to persist and going to get more charged as time goes on.
"It is going to be a very long 18 months," one of the fighters sighed.