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U.S. House vacancies not uncommon

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada is set to become a U.S. senator on Monday after his resignation from a U.S. House district he has represented since 2007.

His departure creates an empty seat in Congress that won’t be filled until September.

But although such a vacuum in its representation will be a first for the Silver State, vacancies are not so rare in the House of Representatives, where departures — and deaths — among its 435 members are a fact of life.

Two House members already have left the 112th Congress ahead of Heller’s move to the Senate side of the Capitol. New York Rep. Chris Lee resigned on Feb. 9 in a sex scandal, and California Rep. Jane Harman quit on Feb. 28 to head a think tank.

In all three cases, there will be a period of time — from 75 to 97 days — when the districts will have no representative in the House.

There were 11 similar vacancies during the 111th Congress of 2009-10, with seats unoccupied between 32 and 172 days — averaging 282 missed roll call votes.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the vacancies typically matter little for the residents of a district or Congress as a whole.

“For a House district to be vacant for a few months is not a big deal,” Ornstein said.

In a year in which Congress confronts big decisions on whether or how the government should be reshaped to address deep deficits and fully emerge from recession, House members will cast several key votes.

Upcoming are debates over increasing the government’s borrowing authority and on individual spending bills that could carry out the priorities of the new Republican majority.

While constituents temporarily lose their voice on such matters, the missed votes rarely change an outcome. There haven’t been any votes this session in which the margin of victory was so slim as to be decided by a single vote, Ornstein said.

Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District won’t be filled again until after a special election Sept. 13. During that time, the House is to be in session 63 days.

While roll call votes will be missed and can’t be helped, House officials and Heller’s office said they are working to minimize any disruptions in constituent services provided in the district.

The 2nd District offices in Carson City, Reno, Elko and Washington, D.C., will remain open under the direction of the House clerk.

Residents who need help with visa applications, Social Security payments or other federal issues should be able to reach someone at those offices.

Heller’s staff plans to transfer any ongoing casework from his House office to his Senate office. He expects to take over the office spaces of departed Sen. John Ensign in Nevada and Washington, but it might be several weeks before that happens. The remaining members of Ensign’s staff have 60 days to wrap up his business.

“We’re hoping that any disruption will be minimal,” said Stewart Bybee, a spokesman for Heller.

Ensign’s former offices are under the control of the secretary of the Senate, which has up to 60 days to prepare them for a new occupant.

In the meantime, Heller will occupy temporary space in the Senate and will be reachable through the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, his office said.

He will have an official website at http://heller.senate.gov starting on Monday.

New Yorkers experienced a similar transition in 2009 when then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand replaced Hillary Clinton in the Senate after Clinton became secretary of state.

The transition wasn’t as smooth as her staff anticipated, former aides said. It took longer to get into the offices than expected, and in the meantime, the staff did not have adequate office space, telephones or computer equipment to run as efficiently as they hoped.

Heller has not yet received Senate committee assignments. As a House member, he has served on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax issues, the federal health insurance programs, trade and Social Security.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. — who is hoping to unseat the new senator in the 2012 elections — also sits on that committee.

While Heller and Berkley rarely voted alike on bills in committee, they generally were on the same page on issues that had a direct effect on Nevada, including matters affecting the gaming industry.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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