Politics the guest of honor at this Las Vegas lunch

This could be an awkward luncheon.

Or maybe it will be quite comfy.

It’s not entirely clear which would be worse.

But when Rep. Joe Heck welcomes House Speaker John Boehner to the Las Vegas Country Club on Jan. 17 for a roundtable and luncheon to raise money, there will be no escaping the politics.

Boehner, of course, is the man most directly responsible for a roadblock on comprehensive immigration reform. The speaker has not only refused to bring up a bipartisan Senate bill in the House, he’s chosen not to allow votes on House-generated bills on the subject.

And that decision prompted Heck — who supports some version of immigration reform — to take on House leadership, including Boehner, in stark terms back in October. “It’s extremely frustrating and very disappointing to hear reports that the House does not plan on voting on immigration reform legislation this year,” Heck said in a news release. “This is yet another example of the leadership vacuum in Washington that rightly has so many people frustrated with this dysfunctional Congress.”

Leadership vacuum? Now that’s awkward.

But not so awkward that Boehner would decline to appear in public with Heck, or to help him raise money for a competitive re-election against Democratic candidate-trainer Erin Bilbray.

The lunch thus gives the Democrats two lines of attack: First, they can call on Heck to lean over mid-meal and politely ask Boehner if he wouldn’t mind ending his legislative blockade on an issue important to Nevada’s ever-growing Hispanic community. Second, Democrats can now credibly attack the idea that Heck isn’t close enough with his leadership to demand progress personally: If Heck’s sitting down for lunch with the speaker, he’s got access.

Heck campaign consultant Ryan Erwin dismisses any furor over the lunch visit as no big deal. “Leadership comes out for both candidates in these [closely divided] districts,” Erwin said. Didn’t House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., show up to help Bilbray raise money?

Indeed she did. But the difference here is Bilbray and Pelosi don’t disagree on a major issue, and Bilbray didn’t accuse her Democratic Party of suffering from a “leadership vacuum.”

Erwin said Heck cuts his own path when it comes to issues, and immigration is a good example. While other members of the Republican caucus oppose immigration reform, Heck has come out for it, including a pathway for illegal immigrants to become citizens after a lengthy naturalization process. (Notwithstanding that position, however, Heck has said he opposes the Senate’s version of the legislation. And a Heck bill aimed at allowing the children of illegal immigrants to become citizens has been criticized as too restrictive by activists.)

Bradley Mayer, Bilbray’s campaign manager, says Boehner’s appearance shows Republicans are taking the race seriously, and acknowledges there’s a political advantage for Democrats in the visit. “It’s a big deal in the sense of this: John Boehner is the face of a do-nothing Congress who’s going to come out here and raise money to keep his majority,” Mayer said. “If you want to change Congress, you have to change who you send to Congress.”

But there’s yet another political subtext in the lunch as well: Boehner recently — and belatedly — took on the tea party members of the House Republican caucus who have bedeviled him since he ascended the speaker’s podium, often ignoring Boehner’s strategic advice. The government shutdown late last year was the result of one such mishap. An exasperated Boehner finally called out conservative members — along with the political action committees that support them — and earned himself some talk-radio wrath in the process.

So does Heck have to worry about turning off members of his base sympathetic to the tea party by lunching with Boehner, the man who they’ve always suspected of being part of the Republican Party’s squishy moderate wing?

This could be an awkward lunch indeed. Maybe an open bar at the head table would help?

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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