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Dean Heller: I’m still a conservative

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). (Post) Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). (Post)

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)  stood alone in recent days as the only Republican senator publicly supporting plans to extend federal unemployment benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans. He's been working with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a longtime champion of unemployment insurance, on a plan to extend the benefits that expired last week for another three months, at a cost of $6.5 billion.

And, being the lone Republican out on that political limb is clearly taking its toll on Heller. He took to the Senate floor Monday night to defend the legislation he's sponsoring, as senators normally do. But he also sought to defend his conservative credentials. Here's a piece of Heller's speech:

“Helping those in need should not be a partisan issue. Providing a limited social net is one of the responsibilities of the federal government,” Heller said in his remarks. “Unfortunately, instead of planning ahead and figuring the best way to do that, we are now forced to decide whether or not to reinstate these benefits after they expired.”

This is a classic case of home state concerns trumping national political concerns or personal ideology. While most congressional Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, saying that it lacks spending cuts to offset the cost of more benefits, Heller is in a state with sky-high unemployment numbers -- a point he made during his remarks. “My state is struggling,” he said.

But, simply because his state's unemployment rate remains well above the national average may not be enough to save Heller from conservative scorn nationally.  On Monday, Heritage Action, one of several outside political groups closely aligned with conservative Republicans, called on lawmakers to vote against the extension because the unemployment insurance program an "ineffective and wasteful program." Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a widely followed conservative lawmaker, said that continuing the program creates a "disincentive to work." Even Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who often votes with Democrats, said via Twitter Monday that any extension "should be offset with spending reductions."

The opposition creates an odd predicament for Heller, a conservative backbencher, who rarely makes waves in the chamber. That Heller felt the need to go to the floor to defend himself speaks to how potent outside conservative groups have become in the decision-making process of Republican legislators.

This item has been updated at 6:20 p.m.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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