How endangered GOP Sen. Dean Heller is seeking to hang on

How endangered GOP Sen. Dean Heller is seeking to hang on
© Getty Images

The most vulnerable Republican in the Senate is locked in a pitched battle with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE over the future of Yucca Mountain, a massive nuclear waste repository located 90 miles outside Las Vegas.

It’s a political fight that is welcome in some ways for Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerLobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play This week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report MORE (Nev.), the only GOP senator running for reelection this year in a state won in 2016 by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe 'Palmetto Promise': South Carolina will decide the race Alabama Senate contender hits Sessions in new ad: 'Hillary still ain't in jail' Worries grow as moderates split Democratic vote MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT

In repeatedly confronting the Trump administration over its plans to reopen the facility, Heller has an opportunity to show off his political independence to home-state voters on an issue where the White House understands he’s sticking up for his state.

That’s key, too, because Heller is seeking to avoid being seen as one of Trump’s GOP critics, a designation that could also hurt his chances come November.

“Heller needs to show he’s been an effective senator,” said Jon Ralston, a prominent Nevada-based political commentator and editor of The Nevada Independent. “This will be a ready-made TV commercial or mail piece for him: ‘I’ve stopped Yucca Mountain.’”

Ralston, a veteran of Nevada politics, predicts Trump backers won’t punish Heller for opposing the president on Yucca Mountain.

“Trump supporters in Nevada don’t care about Yucca Mountain,” he said.

Heller is keen to talk about his efforts to thwart Trump on Yucca.

He says he’s beat back efforts by the administration to add $120 million in the year-end spending packages for fiscal 2017 and 2018 to restart that licensing process for the facility shuttered in 2011 by President Obama and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid: 'People should not be counting Joe Biden out of the race yet' Warren highlights work with Obama, Harry Reid in new Nevada ad Yes, Democrats have to defend their African-American base against Trump MORE (D-Nev.).

“They put it in ‘17, I took it out. They put it in ‘18, I took it out,” Heller told The Hill. 

“They keep putting it in the budget. The House approves it. It comes over here and I take it out,” he added. “I tell them every year, ‘You do that, I’m going to take it out.’”

Heller confronted Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryInterior Secretary David Bernhardt is designated survivor for 2020 State of the Union Attorney tells McConnell that Parnas has records 'directly relevant' to impeachment Overnight Energy: Environment takes center stage in House infrastructure plan | Iowans push 2020 candidates on climate | Sanders offers bill on 'forever chemicals' MORE over the issue at a hearing in March, asking whether the administration would try to secure funding for licensing the repository in the fiscal 2019 spending package.

Perry said he would but acknowledged “the result will probably be about the same” because of the Nevada senator’s opposition.

Heller also grilled White House budget director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request Scaramucci thanks John Kelly for speaking up against Trump Trump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' MORE at a hearing last month.

Mulvaney said he would be open to finding alternative solutions for storing tens of thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste after Heller slammed Yucca Mountain as an “unsafe, ill-conceived proposal.”

“I will take it out,” Heller warned Mulvaney if he attempted to secure money for licensing in 2019.

Heller needs to illustrate his independence from Trump on some issues as he seeks to walk a tightrope to a third term in what is considered a toss-up race. Polls show him neck-and-neck with his likely Democratic challenger, Rep. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenSchumer reminds colleagues to respect decorum at State of the Union speech Senate confirms Trump's 50th circuit judge, despite 'not qualified' rating Hillicon Valley: Facebook to remove mentions of potential whistleblower's name | House Dems demand FCC action over leak of location data | Dem presses regulators to secure health care data MORE (Nev.).

The Republican voted for legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare as well as the tax-cut law, which Democrats are likely to use against him.

The ObamaCare vote in particular could be a problem given opposition to it from Nevada’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. He warned it would threaten health coverage for millions of middle-class families and shift Medicaid costs to states.

“Here there’s been a concern that he’s caved in to Trump and the Trump administration,” said John Tuman, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The health-care vote is one that’s seen as being potentially damaging to him here.”

Tuman said Heller is also at risk of losing ground with Hispanic voters, who made up 17 percent of Nevada’s electorate at the start of 2016, because of Trump’s divisive comments about illegal immigrants.

“The immigration issue, I think, has not been helpful,” he said. “He’s had a hard time in meeting with stakeholders creating the impression that somehow he’s pushing back or trying to be the voice of moderation on immigration.”

Heller decided early on to stick with Trump on high-profile national policy issues after seeing first-hand the risks of disavowing Trump.

Former Rep. Joe HeckJoseph (Joe) John HeckSay 'yes' to a service opportunity — even on your day off Heroes in search of their next mission  Anti-Trump Republicans better look out — voters might send you packing MORE (R-Nev.) lost his Senate race in 2016 to Democrat Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoDSCC endorses McGrath in race against McConnell Democrats press Trump official for answers on ObamaCare replacement plan Senators urge Fed chief to tackle shortcomings of steady economy MORE after calling on Trump to step down as the GOP presidential nominee.

On Yucca, Heller has an active issue on which to show he is fighting for Nevada.

Trump is still seeking $47.7 billion in his budget request for fiscal 2019 to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain, according to Senate sources.

Heller has taken on GOP colleagues in the Senate over the issue, too.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, endorsed the administration’s request to restart the licensing process during a hearing last week.

“I strongly believe that Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution to the nuclear waste stalemate,” he said.

Alexander noted that federal law designates Yucca Mountain as a national repository for spent nuclear fuel and argued that Nuclear Regulatory Commission scientists believe it can be stored there for up to a million years.

Heller immediately pushed back in a sternly worded letter to Alexander and Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHouse passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum Democrats bullish on bill to create women's history museum: 'It's an election year' What the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber MORE (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Water panel, calling the project a “breach of state sovereignty.”

“The Yucca Mountain proposal poses significant health and safety risks and potentially catastrophic financial risks that must be addressed before — and not after – the proposal moves forward should it move forward at all,” he wrote.

Heller is likely to argue that he’ll be more effective in fighting Yucca going forward than Rosen would be.

“Jacky Rosen, if she were to get elected, is going to be a back-bencher freshman,” Ralston said. “I just don’t see that being a factor at all in stopping Yucca Mountain.”

The prospect of shipping highly radioactive waste from around the country to a mountain within 100 miles of the Las Vegas strip has the state’s tourism industry up in arms, says Tuman, of UNLV.

“There’s a great deal of concern about this would mean for the tourism sector,” he said.  “Even among some who are a little more conservative economically, this is not something they want in their backyard.”

Ralston wonders whether, in the Trump era, Nevada voters will care about Yucca Mountain as much as they have in the past.

“Heller will get some mileage out of it, but the question is how much is Yucca Mountain a voting issue for anybody anymore?” he asked.