On voting records, Heller and Ensign differ only 'in areas of gray'

WASHINGTON -- Dean Heller's promotion to the U.S. Senate will offer few surprises to Nevadans accustomed to the conservative voting patterns of John Ensign, according to experts and a look at their records.

Both the incoming Republican senator and the Republican senator whose resignation takes effect Tuesday have built reputations in Congress as reliable party voters, although once in a while they have strayed.

And while they have voted similarly on many issues, Heller, a House member, and Ensign have differed on a handful of high-profile matters.

Both vote along GOP lines more than nine times out of 10, according to a Congressional Quarterly survey of party unity. As for supporting the initiatives of President Barack Obama, Heller voted with the president only 33 percent of the time last year; Ensign supported Obama 34 percent of the time.

In a National Journal analysis, both Heller and Ensign scored as more conservative than three-fourths of the members of the House and Senate, respectively.

Among leading ideological interest groups, the American Conservative Union gave Ensign a grade of 96 for the 2010 session of Congress, based on how he sided on votes the group deemed important to its cause. Heller was given an 88.

Conversely, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action scored Ensign at 5 percent for 2010, and Heller at 10 percent.

Commenting on differences between Heller and Ensign when it comes to ideology, "we would just be talking about areas of grayness," said Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.

Heller's appointment opens the door to the perks of Senate incumbency, broadening the name recognition of the Carson City-based politician into Southern Nevada and improving his ability to raise money in his campaign to keep the seat in the 2012 elections.

When it comes to casting votes, Heller will take his place among 47 Republicans whose aim as a caucus has been to insist on a voice in a Senate led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and more often than not frustrating Reid in the process.

The relationship between Heller and Reid will be one to watch, analysts said, since Reid will play a big role in promoting the Nevada Democrats' candidate in 2012, and he would just as soon have Rep. Shelley Berkley serving beside him.

"The Democrats sense they have an opportunity here (in Nevada)," Lokken said, predicting the relationship between Reid and Heller "will be arm's length but cordial. The 2012 election has to play out."

"Beyond that, he is brand new," Lokken said of Heller. "He is not of much use to someone like Harry Reid because he does not have the connections or the friendships yet. He is going to be treated differently because he is an appointee."

In the meantime, the transition from Ensign to Heller should be seamless on most voting matters, said Eric Herzik, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"Maybe on any given issue there might be a break, but nine times out of 10 they were going to be the same," Herzik said.

Both Ensign and Heller voted for $60 billion in deep cuts to federal spending earlier this year. Both voted against Obama's health care reform last year. Both voted against a major overhaul of regulations that guide Wall Street. Both voted against the pro-immigration DREAM Act. And both voted to block the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon emissions from power plants and factories.

But they don't always vote in lockstep on the handful of major issues that face the two houses.

Last summer, Heller voted to extend emergency unemployment benefits, a key issue in Nevada which was suffering from record joblessness. Ensign voted against the extension, saying he was in favor of helping the unemployed but that the benefits were not offset by savings in other areas and so would just add to the deficit.

Ensign voted earlier this year to extend provisions of the Patriot Act that allow the government broad powers to acquire business records and conduct wiretaps. Heller voted against the extension, citing a libertarian streak of big government suspicion.

Heller voted in December to uphold the "don't ask, don't tell" law barring gays from serving in the military. Ensign voted to repeal the law.

Ensign voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the so-called bank bailout of 2008. Heller voted against it.

"In terms of their voting, both (Heller and Ensign) tend to want to speak against increased spending, both favor significant cuts to balance the federal budget whether they were in the House or Senate," Lokken said.

"But every once in a while both of them could surprise you," Lokken said. "I think they brought a level of common sense to the job and I think they both felt they had an obligation on occasion to vote the way they thought they needed to, and that's a good thing."

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.