Nevada’s newest senator’s fight begins

Nevada’s newest U.S. senator knows in her head that passing comprehensive immigration reform is a long shot, especially in the dawning Donald Trump era. But that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop fighting.

Democratic senator-elect Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina to ever serve in the Senate, scoffed at the notion of building a physical wall along the southern border, mass deportations and the other applause lines that festooned Trump’s campaign speeches.

It makes more sense to embrace the cultural and economic contributions of immigrants, even those who came here illegally, Cortez Masto said. That’s especially true here in Las Vegas, where immigrants of both kinds constitute such a big part of the population.

Her stance is common among Democrats, but one that’s likely to result in frustration while she serves in a GOP Congress. Even if Trump modifies his views (allowing for a “fence” in some border areas instead of the traditional “wall,” or concentrating deportations on those immigrants who have broken other laws), there’s little chance of passing a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship.

Cortez Masto’s comments came in a wide-ranging interview for PoliticsNOW on 8NewsNow. (The program airs at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.) It touched on topics including potential Trump appointees (she has concerns about attorney general pick Jeff Sessions), campaign finance reform (she suggested public financing among potential solutions) and health care (she’s against wholesale repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but agrees it needs to be amended).

Those won’t be Cortez Masto’s only fights once she’s sworn in Jan. 3. The incoming Trump administration has signaled it may revive Yucca Mountain. Cortez Masto — much like the man she’s replacing, Harry Reid — is a committed foe of the project. But unlike Reid, she won’t have the seniority to be able to delay the proposed repository.

“I think we’re [the Nevada congressional delegation] going to have enough clout, but more importantly, we’re going to continue this fight,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen. People need to understand that. It is a hole in the ground now.”

Yet two facts remain: Federal law still designates Yucca Mountain as the burial site for the nation’s nuclear waste. And there are more (and more senior) lawmakers from states that produce nuclear waste than there are from tiny Nevada. Even if Nevada’s delegation has become more anti-Yucca (replacing Rep. Cresent Hardy with dump opponent Ruben Kihuen) it’s still an uphill fight if the Trump administration decides to follow the law, rather than look for ways around it, as President Obama’s administration did.

“If you are going to look down the path of siting it somewhere in the state, then the state should be involved and all the key stakeholders in that state should be involved in accepting it. That’s how the process should work,” Cortez Masto said.

Perhaps. But there’s a wide gulf fixed between how things should work and how they actually work.

Even though Reid chose Cortez Masto as his replacement — and his political machine helped her win a nasty race — she and Reid do differ sometimes.

“I can tell you on [the American prison at the U.S. Navy’s base at] Guantanamo [Bay], I wasn’t for closing it down and transferring prisoners here to the United States,” she said. “I still hold that view, and I think ... it’s an important decision that Congress needs to be a part of.”

Whether Cortez Masto will show other differences with the leaders of her party — whether she’ll be, to quote an early Reid campaign slogan, “independent like Nevada” — will be something to watch as her Senate career unfolds.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. He’ll be on vacation until Jan. 3.