WASHINGTON -- Dean Heller took his place on Monday as the newest member of the U.S. Senate, an appointee who becomes the 25th man to represent Nevada in what has been called the world's greatest deliberative body.
Whether Heller gets to stay beyond the next 18 months depends on how the former Nevada secretary of state and two-term House member is able to navigate as a high-profile political target, analysts say.
Right hand raised, Heller, a Republican from Carson City who turns 51 today , was administered the oath of office by Vice President Joe Biden in a short ceremony on the Senate floor that was completed at 2:11 p.m.
Fellow Nevadan Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, stood behind Heller during his swearing-in and welcomed him to the body. Heller's wife, Lynne, their four children and a son-in-law, and a handful of House aides, looked on from the gallery above the chamber.
Afterward, Heller and his family wore broad smiles as they joked with Biden during a re-enactment of the swearing-in. They also were guests at a reception Reid hosted later in the day in his Senate office.
But Heller, a former stockbroker who served in the Nevada Assembly, took the first substantive steps as a senator, co-sponsoring a bill already backed by other GOP senators to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget.
A few hours later, he cast his first vote, one in step with fellow Republicans to reject James Cole, President Barack Obama's nominee for the No. 2 job at the Justice Department.
HELLER STANDS FIRM
Heller said he does not plan to alter his outlook as a fiscal conservative with the change in scenery from the House. "My philosophy does not change when I come over to the Senate," he told reporters.
He said he would stick by his vote in the House in favor of a Republican budget plan that includes turning Medicare from an open-funded entitlement to a "premium support" system in which seniors would buy their own insurance with government subsidies. The unacceptable alternative, he maintained, would be "tax increases and rationing health care."
Heller also said he would find it "very, very difficult" to vote in favor of raising the ceiling on government borrowing, although he would not rule it out before seeing whether negotiations on the upcoming vote can produce an acceptable deal to cut spending in the process.
He rejected the idea, first raised by Reid, that he has to "broaden" his view from that of a House member moving to the Senate. He said that the 2nd Congressional District he represented included part of populous Clark County and that as secretary of state, "I have represented the whole state for years."
For Heller, the swearing-in capped a series of fast-moving events dating to when he declared on March 7 that he would run for Senate in the 2012 elections to succeed Republican incumbent Sen. John Ensign, who was wounded by ethics allegations and announced he would not seek re-election.
On April 21, Ensign resigned outright, prompting Gov. Brian Sandoval to appoint Heller to fill out the unexpired term until 2012.
IN DEMOCRATS' CROSS HAIRS
"They say the longest walk in Washington is from the House side of the Capitol to the Senate side," Biden joked during the mock swearing-in. For Heller, he said, "it was an easy walk."
But for Democrats, Heller's swearing-in carried an asterisk because he was appointed by a Republican governor and not chosen by voters. By that measure, his appointment raises the stakes in what is being viewed as a marquee Senate race in the months ahead.
"He should enjoy his first weeks in the Senate because I think it is going to get bumpier with tough votes and his relationship with (Reid)," said University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Eric Herzik.
"As Democrats start to mount their 2012 campaign, he is a target, and everything he does will be scrutinized far more than if he was still just a congressman," Herzik said.
In a bid to "introduce" Heller to Las Vegas voters outside his Northern Nevada-based district, Democrats have mounted a series of criticisms against his recent voting record in favor of deep federal spending cuts and sweeping changes in Medicare, both Republican strategies to address the deficit.
Democratic strategists say they plan to keep up the pressure on Heller as they contest the seat in the 2012 elections. The party's choice is Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas, who faces a primary challenge from Las Vegas attorney Byron Georgiou.
On the day Heller took office, Emily's List, a major backer of women in politics, announced it was endorsing Berkley and would help her raise money.
In Las Vegas, a handful of Democratic activists held an event at the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse to highlight what they called Heller's "out-of-touch record on jobs, seniors and veterans."
And in the Senate, Reid is planning to schedule votes soon on Medicare spending and on repealing tax breaks for oil companies, both designed to get Republicans to cast potentially damaging votes.
As a senator, Heller is within Reid's direct line of sight and could be within his direct line of fire because the cagey Senate leader is backing Berkley and could make it difficult for Heller initiatives to gain much traction.
"It will be interesting to see if Heller and Reid maintain some initial peace treaty," Herzik said. "If Reid doesn't publicly go after Heller and in a sense publicly try to bring him down, that might be the best that Heller can hope for."
Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said Heller will be walking a Senate tightrope, "but he knows it."
Peplowski said Heller would benefit by being assigned to committees such as Armed Services or Commerce, Science and Transportation, relatively noncontroversial panels where he could focus on matters affecting Nevada's military bases, airports and tourism industries.
But for a few minutes on an otherwise quiet Monday afternoon, politics took a timeout as Heller joined the Senate club. Republican leaders Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Cornyn of Texas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee turned out for the swearing-in, as did Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
Also there were Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Tom Udall, D-N.M. They, like Heller, are members of the Mormon church.
"It is very humbling," Heller said of joining the Senate. He said he hoped to model himself after Paul Laxalt, the Nevada Republican and a leading Senate conservative (and a fellow graduate of Carson High School) who served in Washington from 1974 to 1986.
"Everybody who has served in the Senate ... these are incredible people who served the country well, and I certainly hope at some point in my career that I will have similar achievements," he said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.