WASHINGTON— Democrat Heidi Heitkamp spent much of her 2012 Senate campaign trying to distinguish herself from national figures in her party like President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Now that she is a U.S. Senator, she faces the same challenge.
As Heitkamp approaches the end of her first year as a senator, she has tried to keep a delicate balance, weighing the views of her generally conservative North Dakota constituents and the policy priorities of national Democrats. In some cases, like guns, that’s meant bucking her party outright. On others, such as health care, it’s meant being critical — but measured — in her approach to an issue that Republicans have focused on in her home state.
Just before she returned to North Dakota for Congress’ Thanksgiving break, Heitkamp was once again put on the spot by national Democrats. Reid led a maneuver that changed a century’s worth of Senate procedures, and will now allow all presidential appointments and all court appointments other than Supreme Court appointments to move forward with a simple majority vote.
Heitkamp voted for the change. In an interview, she said it was consistent with her promise to North Dakotans that she would be independent-minded and focused on getting things done in the Senate. She said the Senate was becoming gridlocked.
“If we had the same problem, and the Senate majority was Republican, I’d have voted exactly the same way,” Heitkamp said.
“This is about fixing problems,” she added.
Republicans did not see it that way. Her GOP colleague, Sen. John Hoeven, said the move would poison hopes of bipartisan work in the Senate.
“They’re doing something with all Democratic votes, and if there’s one thing Obamacare has shown it’s that that doesn’t work,” Hoeven said.
And the state GOP rapped Heitkamp for rolling back “225-year-old Senate rules,” changing the checks and balances that Founding Fathers had intended and, worst of all, weakening North Dakota’s clout.
“The Senate was designed to protect the American people from the tyranny of the majority and ensure that the voices of small states — like North Dakota — are heard,” said Robert Harms, the state Republican chairman. “This is nothing more than an unconstitutional power grab by a Democratic majority desperate to deflect attention away from the damaging impacts of Obamacare.”
Heitkamp has endured regular Republican criticism since being elected. Though she’s not up for re-election until 2018 — a lifetime in politics — Heitkamp is among a group of Democrats holding seats in traditionally Republican states that have faced new pressures as criticism of the Affordable Care Act has risen and approval of President Barack Obama and his signature health care law have dropped precipitously.
Those pressures aren’t likely to ease, either. More hearings are scheduled on the Affordable Care Act after Congress returns from its Thanksgiving break, and a highly partisan environment is likely to continue and hang over key votes through midterm elections next year.
On health care in particular, Heitkamp has mixed support for the law with sometimes scathing criticism.
“I’d love to see some things in there rolled back,” she said. “The experience we’re having right now adds to that list.”
Heitkamp said she is aghast at the problems with the healthcare.gov website but expects them to be fixed. As for other issues, she said her policy all along has been that the sweeping law would need changes and that she would call for them as she saw them.
“There’s good and bad in the law, and the bad needs to be fixed,” she said. “Right now, we’re seeing a whole lot of issues that needed to be addressed.”
Harms and other Republicans both locally and nationally have said Heitkamp’s approach is not good enough. They’ve called for a full repeal of the health care law and said that she is acting as a rubber stamp for Obama and Reid.
Such criticisms are hardly new.
During her 2012 race against GOP Senate candidate Rick Berg, Heitkamp faced a barrage of ads linking her with Obama, Reid and others making similar claims. Some TV ads superimposed her picture in frames with Obama and Reid, others noted her backing by the traditionally Democratic trial lawyers and sought to strip away the idea that she was independent-minded.
Republicans have continued the criticism even after Heitkamp defeated Berg. Since taking her seat, Heitkamp has also faced criticism from the left, particularly when she parted ways with her party as it sought to make changes to gun laws in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Gun control groups, including one backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ran print and TV ads targeting her.
Heitkamp chastised Bloomberg for the ad, saying a big-city mayor could hardly appreciate North Dakota’s gun culture. And she said she won’t hesitate to buck her party in the future.
“If being part of fixing the problem puts something at risk for me, I guess that’s the way the way it is,” she said.