Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), considered the most vulnerable member of Congress’ upper chamber running for re-election in 2018, told an activist who confronted him over family separation during a telephone town hall that her concerns were “DNC talking points,” according to audio of the call obtained by HuffPost.
Heller is facing a stiff challenge from Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and is caught between the demands of a base loyal to President Donald Trump and the need to win over swing voters and Democrats in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Heller’s back-and-forth with aggressive questioners on the call shows how he is trying to navigate tricky political waters. He noted he sponsored legislation to the end the practice of separating families but avoided criticizing the president whose administration implemented it.
Heller held the tele-town hall for residents of Washoe County, the state’s second-most-populous jurisdiction, last Wednesday. At the end of the hour-long session, an activist confronted the senator over health care, immigration and public lands.
“I’m upset about a lot of things that you’ve been disingenuous about on this call,” said a woman who identified herself on the call as Valerie, ticking off concerns about public lands in the state and accusing Heller of siding with Trump’s immigration policies. “I’m just wondering how can you live with yourself as there are 3,000 children that have still not been reunited with their parents? That’s disgusting. I just wonder, like, how do you sleep at night?”
“Alright, we got our DNC talking points out at this point,” Heller replied. He noted he supported Obama-era immigration reform efforts and pointed out that he’d joined other GOP senators to send Attorney General Jeff Sessions a letter opposing the separation policy and has introduced legislation to end it.
“Nobody wants to see children separated from their families, period,” Heller said when he introduced the legislation.
Hear audio from Heller’s conversation with Valerie below.
Heller’s office noted he regularly holds tele-town halls, invites members of all parties to participate and doesn’t screen callers or questions.
“Senator Heller has been conducting telephone town hall meetings since his days in the U.S. House of Representatives and he continues to talk to tens of thousands of Nevadans each week while he is in Washington, D.C.,” Heller spokeswoman Megan Taylor wrote in an email. “Senator Heller does as many telephone town halls as possible because it provides him with the opportunity to gather feedback from all Nevadans ― we do not screen callers or questions.”
Earlier in the call, an activist named Theresa Bohannan pressured Heller on health care. (Bohannan, who has a 1-year-old son with a heart defect, has appeared in television ads pressuring Heller to vote against repealing Obamacare.) She said she had traveled to Washington, D.C., hoping to meet with Heller, but had been rebuffed.
“I was lied to by your staff,” Bohannan said. “I’ve never been able to meet with you. I’ve wanted to speak with you about health care for my son, and I feel that I’ve listened to a lot of the answers that you’ve given, and you’ve been very disingenuous.”
Bohannan cited Sessions’ decision not to fight to uphold provisions of Obamacare designed to protect people with pre-existing conditions and said she thought a potential Heller vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court could put the protections at risk.
“Every piece of legislation that has come out of my office and that has to do with health care does include the provision for pre-existing condition,” Heller said in response. “You can check my voting record, and you can talk to anybody that knows my position on health care.”
He added later: “I am the one Republican in Washington, D.C., that has kept expanded Medicaid in every single piece of legislation that the Republicans have introduced on the floor. Myself, alone, has supported and protected expanded Medicaid.” He invited Bohannan to call his office and said he would try to help both her and her child.
“I think it is very clear that we don’t filter our calls that come in here,” he said. “If you are a Republican, or in this case, a Democrat, or a nonpartisan, you can call into these tele-town hall meetings and tell us how you feel. And Theresa just told me how she feels, and I feel for her.”
Hear audio from Heller’s conversation with Theresa Bohannan below.
But health care groups and advocates have said legislation that Heller claims would protect people with pre-existing conditions actually wouldn’t.
Heller’s comments at town halls and behind closed doors have had a tendency to leak out into public this cycle. On at least eight occasions since January 2017, audio of Heller speaking has leaked to the media. In the most recent instance, the Nevada Independent published audio of Heller saying “time’s run out” on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – only a few months after Heller said he hoped the investigation would reach its natural conclusion.
But Heller would be glad to discuss it with constituents. Just ask him.
“We can debate this,” he said at the conclusion of the call leaked to HuffPost. “Happy to debate it at any time. Call my office, I’ll take anybody’s calls.”