Heller not ruling out higher rates for rich in ‘fiscal cliff’ deal

WASHINGTON – Sen. Dean Heller said Wednesday he would not rule out allowing tax rates to increase for higher-income Americans if it is coupled with substantial spending cuts and "real reforms" to Medicare and other social programs in a bid to avoid the "fiscal cliff."

As Congress has debated debt and deficit issues over the past months, Heller, R-Nev., has voted against allowing tax cuts to expire at the end of the year for taxpayers at all income levels including families who earn more than $250,000.

But as government leaders are negotiating before a year-end deadline to avert at least $500 billion in automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts – the "fiscal cliff" – Heller said he would "take a serious look at any proposal," including ones that might allow rates to increase on upper-income families while keeping them lower for others.

President Barack Obama has insisted that higher tax rates for the rich be part of any deal, one of the sticking points in negotiations with Republican leaders, and one that has split Republicans on a response.

"I want to see what the package is," Heller said. "If you have a revenue enhancement as part of it and there are no real reforms on the spending side, it would be difficult for me to support a package like that. But if it is a balanced approach, I’ll take a serious look at it."

Heller added that would include a rate hike for wealthier taxpayers, although he made clear that would not be his preference and that his trade-off would need to be significant changes in government spending habits.

"I don’t think we are $16 trillion in debt because we don’t tax too much," he said. "We are $16 trillion in debt because we spend too much."

Heller outlined his views during an interview on issues before the lame-duck Congress and what lawmakers will face in the 113th session, which starts in January.

Among his stances are the following:

■ Republicans should spend "very little" time and energy continuing to fight Obamacare. He said he backed Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision this week to agree to expand Medicaid in Nevada through the federal health care law.

"I figured this election was going to determine whether it became the law of the land, and President Obama was re-elected and now it’s the law of the land, and the governor understood that," Heller said. "It’s a decision he made for the people of Nevada, and I’ll back the decision he made."

■ Heller endorsed the proposal by Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller to establish a voter identification program that would tie a voter’s registration to driver’s license photos.

Heller, who served as secretary of state from 1995 until he entered Congress in 2007, said a Nevada voter ID plan was "long overdue."

Heller added it might be debated by the Nevada Legislature in a package with same-day voter registration, an idea he opposes.

■ Heller said he continues to work Senate Republicans for votes in favor of an Internet poker bill whose fate hangs in the final days of the lame-duck session. Failure to pass a bill "will be tough on the casino industry," which is longing to create a national market for online poker.

■ Heller, elected from a state with a 27 percent Hispanic population, expects to have a voice in immigration legislation in the new Congress, but it remains to be seen whether his role will be a public one or behind the scenes.

During his election campaign, Heller endorsed key elements of the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship to young people brought into the country illegally if they serve in the military or attend college. But he has called for changes in the nuts and bolts of the bill and for the Senate to take up the measure in open debate and amendment.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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