(Steve Sebelius/CityLife) – U.S. Rep. Dean Heller said two ideas he’s proposed for the health-care bill were rejected, including one that was opposed by his fellow Republicans.
In a wide-ranging interview with bloggers and radio talkers Friday, sponsored by the Nevada News Bureau and held in the offices of Republican consultant Sig Rogich, Heller said he’d tried to get amendments to allow student loan forgiveness for doctors and nurses who go to work in under-served rural and urban areas, to no avail.
He also failed to secure an amendment that would have allowed doctors to write off the cost of treating indigent patients in their offices, a much cheaper alternative than hospital emergency rooms. Fellow Republicans opposed the latter amendment, he said, for fear that trial lawyers would then use it as an argument to write off pro bono work.
Heller, a self-described “low-tax, small-government conservative” accused majority Democrats of using their majority status in Congress to repay favored constituencies. “This is just payback time,” he said, for environmentalists, unions and trial lawyers, who are helping to write the massive health-care bill now being debated in Washington, D.C.
Asked about the impact of U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s extramarital affair and accusations of lawbreaking on the 2010 elections, Heller made it clear he would be running for re-election without the junior senator’s help.
“I’ll run on my own merits,” he said. “I’m not going to ask him for his help or his support.”
(In an interview Monday on KXNT-AM 840, Ensign told radio host Alan Stock that some GOP candidates running in 2010 wanted his help on their campaigns. Ensign once ranked as Nevada’s most popular elected official until confessing in June to an affair with a campaign aide, who was also the wife of his then-best friend and employee in the senator’s Washington office, Doug Hampton. Since then, it’s been revealed that Ensign helped Hampton find lobbying jobs in Nevada and that Ensign’s parents paid the Hampton family $96,000 in what the Hamptons have characterized as severance pay. Both revelations raise questions about potential legal and ethical violations.)
On the war in Afghanistan, Heller said he supports President Barack Obama’s dispatching of more troops, but added the president didn’t go far enough. (Obama said this week he’d send an additional 30,000 soldiers, but one scenario developed by Afghanistan commanders called for no less than 80,000.)
“I hope he’s [Obama] right. I want this president to be right,” Heller said. “I got the feeling he didn’t believe what he was saying” in his speech at West Point Tuesday announcing the additional troops.
If commanders say they need 80,000, Heller said, we should send that many, or scrap the war effort entirely. “I think you’re handicapping their ability to strike” with truncated numbers, he said. “You listen to the commanders on the ground. You’re either all in or get out.”
Heller’s attitude was the same when it came to torture, which he said repeatedly he was against. However, Heller allowed that if the military doesn’t define a particular tactic as torture, then it’s not.
“If the military says it’s not torture, then I agree with them,” he said. “If it’s been determined by the military that its an appropriate way of engaging a POW, then I will go along with that.”
Asked if he thought war on terror detainees were POWs (as opposed to “unlawful combatants,” who are not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention) Heller first said yes. But after being asked more extensively about the distinction between the two, he added, “I don’t want to break that fine line.”
Heller also said the military prosecution of several Navy SEALs charged with allegedly assaulting alleged terrorist Ahmed Hashim Abed should be placed on hold until more is known about the incident. Heller said President Obama should “put the breaks” on the prosecution until he gets more information. But, the congressman added, “If there’s cause, then we ought to move forward.”
On politics, Heller said the Republican Party in Nevada needs to stick to registering voters and developing a solid get-out-the-vote effort for election day. “That’s all I want the party to do,” he said. “If that’s all the party would do, we’d be great.”
Although Heller was assiduously courted by top national Republicans to run against U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the congressman declined. But he said Reid was vulnerable because of his stance on a host of issues, from health care to cap-and-trade legislation to bailouts for banks and the stimulus. He said a recent poll that showed Reid’s favorability ratings have not changed despite weeks of TV campaign ads proves the senior senator is vulnerable.
The 2010 elections, Heller predicted, would not see a Republican wave so much as an anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent wave. There are nine announced challengers to Reid, including former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden, ex-Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, state Sen. Mark Amodei and famous basketball son Danny Tarkanian.
Finally, Heller also said he was a co-sponsor of a bill to require a test for each new piece of legislation to see if it passes constitutional muster before it could move forward. (Legislative lawyers attached to various committees would be responsible for the analysis.) Asked if he could name a bill he opposed because he thought it was unconstitutional, Heller cited the recent Cash for Clunkers program that offered rebates to customers who turned in gas-guzzling vehicles for more fuel-efficient ones.
And asked further if programs such as Social Security or Medicare pass constitutional muster — since neither is specifically authorized by the Constitution — Heller said it was open to debate. “I think it raises the question. I don’t know what the answer is. I’d like to see the question raised,” he said. “At least we’d be having that discussion. We need to have that discussion.”
Heller, a former two-term member of Nevada’s Assembly, served as Nevada’s secretary of state from 1994 to 2006, when he was elected to the first of two terms in Congress. He’s up for re-election again in 2010. Heller’s district covers the entire state, and portions of Clark County.