WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Ensign organized a telephone call Wednesday night to thousands of Southern Nevadans represented by Rep. Dina Titus, in which he spoke against the pending health care reform bill and urged his audience to call her about it.
The move added to the pressure on Titus days before the House is expected to vote on the highly controversial measure. And it came from an unusual place -- a fellow member of Nevada's delegation to Congress.
Ensign is a Republican who has been outspoken against the bill, while Titus is one of a shrinking number of House Democrats who have yet to declare how they will vote.
An Ensign spokeswoman said Thursday his intent was not to insert himself into the politics of the Third Congressional District, where Titus is being closely watched for how she votes on this issue, and where her likely Republican opponent is Joe Heck, a physician who opposes the bill.
"This was purely health care-related," said his spokeswoman, Rebecca Fisher. "This was about the bill, not the politics."
"I think that sincerely, his motivation here is that he knows she is key to this vote in the House and he wants to make sure her constituents are well-informed and well-aware of that, and voice their opinions to her," Fisher said. "I don't think it has really any political undertones at this point."
Andrew Stone, a Democratic operative, called it "the height of arrogance" for Ensign to "insert himself into a policy discussion between Congresswoman Titus and her constituents."
"Joe Heck has no problem taking money from John Ensign and apparently Heck doesn't mind doing his work for him either," said Stone, a press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Some Democrats suggested Ensign may have violated franking rules in the call. Ensign's office dismissed the claim, with an aide saying that residents of that area are his constituents too, and he has a right to communicate with them.
Ensign did not mention Heck on the call, Fisher said.
Contacted Thursday, Heck said he was not aware of Ensign's call. He said his home was not called and invited to take part in the event.
"As a senator he represents the entire state and he certainly is within his jurisdiction and within his rights to check the pulse of what is going on in the entire state," Heck said.
On health care, Heck said he opposes the legislation in Congress, believing it will have "overwhelmingly a negative impact on the provision of health care."
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno said what Ensign did is unusual -- specifically targeting the electorate of a lawmaker from his own state.
"I would say this is a clumsy move," Herzik said.
Titus was unaware of the Ensign call, her spokesman Andrew Stoddard said.
"I hope Senator Ensign took this opportunity to discuss the Republican health care plan that fails to end discrimination for pre-existing conditions, gender discrimination, and caps on out-of-pocket expenses as well as their plan to dismantle and privatize Medicare and Social Security that so many Southern Nevada seniors count on," Stoddard said in a statement.
Titus remained mum Thursday on how she will vote. She has said she would commit only after seeing details of the unfinished bill, gauging its costs and weighing the unusual "reconciliation" procedure under which Democratic leaders are trying to get it passed over near-unanimous Republican opposition.
Meanwhile the National Republican Congressional Committee began running television ads in Southern Nevada saying Titus' political career was "on life support."
Additionally, NRCC spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said for Friday the GOP group has hired a "mobile billboard" truck to drive around Henderson bearing the message: "Tell Dina Titus to Vote No on Obamacare" and listing her office phone number.
Ensign's hour-long telephone "town hall meeting" drew about 4,000 residents of the Third Congressional District, which includes Henderson, Boulder City, parts of Summerlin and North Las Vegas, and parts of the unincorporated outskirts of Clark County.
Organizers of the call were given zip codes of the intended audience. Robo-calls were made to about 40,000 homes, inviting them to stay on the line for the session. Fisher estimated about 4,000 did so.
Ensign spoke about what he views as flaws in the major bill that seeks to extend health coverage to millions of Americans, and provides subsidies to people who can't afford it on their own. Republicans charge the bill will increase health care costs and deepen the federal budget deficit, while expanding the federal government's role in picking health care winners and losers.
"This vote is the single most important vote every member of Congress will take in their careers and it is critical that Nevadans make their voice heard on this issue," Ensign said on the call, according to a copy of his remarks obtained from his office.
According to Fisher, Ensign offered to answer questions and talked to the audience "about how they need to be active on this and let (Titus) know what they think."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.