Heller in transition: One foot in House, one foot in Senate

WASHINGTON -- Stepping around packing boxes in his House office, Rep. Dean Heller walked over to the other side of the Capitol on Tuesday to have lunch with soon-to-be Republican colleagues in the Senate.

Heller knew a handful of them already. Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boozman of Arkansas, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Jerry Moran of Kansas were former House members of recent vintage.

On Monday, Heller will become the latest to make the transition.

The Nevada Republican is a man with one foot in the House and the other foot in the Senate this week as he wraps up four years and four months as a congressman and prepares to be formally appointed and sworn in as Nevada's 25th senator.

In an interview, Heller said he intends to work initially on getting settled as a senator, with a focus on high gasoline prices, the economy and Nevada foreclosures.

As he faces voters in November 2012, he said he does not intend to spend much time campaigning at first.

"My plate is full, as you can imagine in this transition," Heller said. "I am going to concentrate right now on the job at hand. I do not anticipate in the short term getting into campaign mode."

With the election 18 months away, Heller maintained it is too early to campaign.

"It is for me, anyway," he said. "It doesn't appear to be (too early) for the other side."


Democrats eyeing the Nevada seat for one of their own, Rep. Shelley Berkley, already have launched attacks on Heller's House votes this year, including his endorsement of deep spending cuts to address the deficit and a Republican budget blueprint that includes sweeping changes to Medicare.

Zach Hudson, a spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party, said Democrats intend to keep pressure on Heller whether he chooses to engage or not.

"He can call it campaigning or not, but he has a lot of explaining to do to Nevadans" about his voting record on jobs and Medicare, Hudson said. "Obviously he has a lot of work cut out for him. He will be held to a higher standard and stricter scrutiny."

In the interview, Heller said he was staying out of the controversy surrounding the special election scheduled for Sept. 13 to choose his successor to represent the Northern Nevada-based 2nd Congressional District.

Secretary of State Ross Miller said Monday the election will be open to all candidates, rather than limited to party-picked ones. The move seems to favor Democrats because a number of Republicans already have declared interest, including tea party favorite Sharron Angle, and that could end up splitting the GOP vote.


Heller, a former Nevada secretary of state, said he was not going to second-guess Miller. With the decision expected to be challenged in court, Heller said he thought Miller's ruling probably would be upheld.

"When the secretary of state makes a ruling, he's got a lot of latitude, and the courts pretty much have backed him up," Heller said. "The constitution of Nevada gives him a tremendous amount of authority, and I think the governor recognizes that and the courts recognize that too.

"At least in my experience of my 12 years as secretary of state, I don't think a decision I ever made was overruled."

"I pretty much thought the secretary of state was going to do what the secretary of state felt was most important," Heller said. "This process is far from over, but he could have gone either way, and either way can be justified."

Heller said an open ballot does not necessarily hurt Republican chances to hold onto a House seat in a district that has never elected a Democrat in 30 years.

"I think it is going to be pretty fair," he said. "I think the best team is going to win. I am not worried too much about that."

He added he will not endorse a candidate in an open ballot race. "I have too many friends running for that seat," he said.


Heller also said he expects to get along with Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, who told a radio interviewer last week that Heller will have to step up his game moving to the Senate.

"I was kind of amused" at Reid's comments, Heller said. "I don't see any upside for Nevada for us to be at odds. It is always better for the state if Senator Reid and I work well together, and I anticipate that will be the case."

Nonetheless, Heller said he was not certain he will enjoy the same relationship with Reid as Sen. John Ensign, who resigned. The two had a friendship pact in which they agreed not to criticize each other publicly.


At lunch with Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Heller told them that he was going to lean on them heavily as he takes office and that his priorities won't change in moving from the House to the Senate.

Three of Heller's senior aides are managing the Senate transition, which will find him adding staff to handle an expanded workload and working for several weeks from a temporary office until he moves into the suite being vacated by Ensign.

In the meantime, Heller continues to vote this week as a House member, the last votes that will be cast by a representative of the 2nd Congressional District until a winner is declared in the special election.

As an indication of Heller's juggling act this week, while at lunch in the Senate on Tuesday, he missed two preliminary votes on a Republican bill that would defund parts of the 2010 health care overhaul. He returned in time to vote on four amendments and final passage.

It's expected Heller formally will resign from the House on Monday, aides said, shortly before acquiring his new title. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Heller will be sworn in at 2 p.m. that day.

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