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

How endangered GOP Sen. Dean Heller is seeking to hang on
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The most vulnerable Republican in the Senate is locked in a pitched battle with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 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 HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary 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 ClintonHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests MORE.

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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 ReidLobbying World Mitch McConnell is not invincible Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary 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 PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? House Dems propose billions in extra funding for environmental programs that Trump sought to cut 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 MulvaneyOn The Money: Judge rules banks can give Trump records to House | Mnuchin pegs debt ceiling deadline as 'late summer' | Democrats see momentum in Trump tax return fight | House rebukes Trump changes to consumer agency House rebukes Mulvaney's efforts to rein in consumer bureau The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push 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 RosenLawmakers introduce legislation to improve cyber workforce funding Dem lawmakers accuse DHS, HHS of giving them misleading information on family separations This week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report 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 HeckAnti-Trump Republicans better look out — voters might send you packing How endangered GOP Sen. Dean Heller is seeking to hang on Bottom line MORE (R-Nev.) lost his Senate race in 2016 to Democrat Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Schumer, author discussed possible Kansas Senate run: report Life in the minority at the FCC 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 AlexanderCollins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' Senate chairman says bipartisan health care package coming Thursday It's time for Republicans to lead (again) on climate 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 FeinsteinFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report Jeffrey Rosen officially sworn in as deputy attorney general This week: Democrats, White House set for infrastructure, budget talks 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.