The most vulnerable Republican in the Senate is locked in a pitched battle with President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China WSJ publishes letter from Trump continuing to allege voter fraud in PA Oath Keeper who was at Capitol on Jan. 6 runs for New Jersey State Assembly 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 HellerNevada becomes early Senate battleground Nevada governor Sisolak injured in car accident, released from hospital Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada 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 ClintonTrump to attend World Series Game 4 in Atlanta Pavlich: Democrats' weaponization of the DOJ is back Mellman: The trout in the milk MORE.
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 calls on Democrats to plow forward on immigration Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt 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 PerryRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party College football move rocks Texas legislature Trump tries to spin failed Texas endorsement: 'This was a win' 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 MulvaneyMick MulvaneyJan. 6 committee issues latest round of subpoenas for rally organizers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - To vote or not? Pelosi faces infrastructure decision Jan. 6 panel subpoenas 11, including Pierson, other rally organizers 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 RosenProgressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Nevada becomes early Senate battleground Hillicon Valley — Presented by American Edge Project — Americans blame politicians, social media for spread of misinformation: poll 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 HeckNevada becomes early Senate battleground Democratic poll finds Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by 4 points in Nevada Senate race Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms MORE (R-Nev.) lost his Senate race in 2016 to Democrat Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoInfrastructure bill carves out boosts to first responders, wildland firefighters Senate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents Nevada becomes early Senate battleground 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 AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate 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 Feinstein Ban on new offshore drilling must stay in the Build Back Better Act Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Jane Fonda to push for end to offshore oil drilling in California 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.