LAS VEGAS — Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., distanced himself from President Donald Trump on several prominent policy issues in an interview with NBC News Monday, saying he opposes a government shutdown in order to secure funding for a border wall, does not support potential changes to protections for undocumented children and disagrees with the president's pardoning of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Heller, considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans facing reelection next year, was most outspoken on the pardon for Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt after failing to obey a judge’s order to stop detaining people for suspicion of being undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t believe anybody’s above the law,” Heller said of the pardon. “I do believe the courts ought to run its course and let the system work its way through this. But I just don’t believe anybody’s above the law.”
The senior senator from Nevada, who sat for an interview at the Wynn Hotel Monday morning, is facing a campaign in 2018 that is likely to be the most difficult of his career and one of the most closely watched in the nation, especially with Republicans holding a narrow Senate majority heading into the midterm election cycle.
Heller is facing pressure from both sides with a primary challenge from perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, who is clinging closely to the president, and a tough potential general election race against Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen.
And he’s the only Republican senator running in a state won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton while having to navigate around Trump, whose sometimes divisive politics don’t play well in a state where more than 17 percent of the electorate was Latino in 2016. Heller carefully distanced himself from Trump on several issues in the interview, especially those important to Latinos.
Heller said the president's threat to shut down the government if Congress refuses to give him a down-payment on his border wall in upcoming spending bills would only hurt the GOP.
“I don’t like shutting down the government,” Heller said. “There will be no excuses and nobody else’s fault but the Republican Party if this government does shut down.”
He did say, however, that Congress should give Trump the funding he wants, which is presumably the $1.4 billion he asked for in his budget. “I think as Republicans we need to be reasonable and work with the president on this and let's make sure he gets the funding he needs.”
Heller said he has “always supported the border wall” and border security, but said a continuous physical wall along the border isn’t necessary, saying the border patrol should determine what type of security is necessary.
“Where it’s necessary to build the wall, they’ll build a wall,” Heller said of the Department of Homeland Security. “There are some of the areas that, frankly, you can’t build it just because of the dynamics of that particular region.”
And with Trump considering a move to rescind DACA protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, Heller said he thinks those protections should stay in place.
“I like the current law the way that it is in place and I continue to support it,” he said, adding that he is pushing for immigration reform. “Let’s help and support these individuals and find a pathway they can become United States citizens if that’s what they want to do.”
“I will certainly fight on behalf of the Hispanic and Latino communities to make sure these individuals aren’t unfairly treated,” he said.
Trump and Heller have been at odds over health care for the past several months after the senator strongly opposed any reduction to the Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which gave more than 200,000 Nevadans access to Medicaid. A super PAC supporting Trump began, then took down, television ads attacking Heller for his opposition.
“We have our differences,” Heller said of Trump. “I know the president wakes up every morning trying to figure out what’s best for America and I wake up every morning trying to figure out what’s best for Nevada. There’s going to be inherent conflicts in that. But at the end of the day, hopefully we’re close.”
But Heller wouldn’t say if Trump represents the values of the Republican Party. When asked if Trump is divisive, Heller said, “People do say that. I don’t respond to his tweets.”
"Most of what he’s done right now is pretty conservative and frankly 99 percent of his agenda that I’ve seen out there has been conservative and a lot of it I can support," he added.
In the Senate’s effort to repeal Obamacare, Heller opposed the repeal and replace bill as well as a straight repeal. He did, however, vote for the most scaled back version known as the “skinny” repeal. It failed though because three Republicans voted against it.
Congress returns to Washington next week and is likely to take up funding for Hurricane Harvey relief. Heller said he wants to provide funding to help the devastated area. "One way or another we need to support east Texas."
He said he also supports Trump's order allowing local law enforcement to receive military equipment, which is something that President Barack Obama banned.
"There’s a lot of excess material and equipment out there that I think the local governments can use. They've just got to be very careful in how they use it but I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our sheriffs police department that they’ll take care and use this stuff in the way it's necessary."