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Heller has changed abortion stance in Congress

Kevin Freking

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller's stance on abortion would appear to have changed completely from the congressional candidate who stated five years ago that he supported a woman's right to have an abortion.

Back in July 2006, Heller told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "I'm a Mormon and I teach Sunday school every week, but I do back a woman's right to choose abortion. It is the conservative position."

Since entering Congress, however, the GOP lawmaker has voted consistently for legislation sought by abortion foes. He voted in April to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. The organization is barred from using tax dollars for abortions, but the elimination of federal money for other services such as cancer screenings and birth control would make it harder for the organization to operate some of its clinics.

In May, he voted for legislation that included a provision that would deny tax credits to small businesses that offer private health insurance covering abortions. And he voted against a measure that would allow the District of Columbia to use local tax dollars to pay for abortions.

Heller, 51, said he did not have an epiphany on the issue. "I was probably more libertarian when I was back in the state. I came here to Washington D.C., and there were certain votes that had to be cast. A couple of those votes, of course, had to do with the federal funding of abortions. I didn't support it," said Heller, who served as Nevada's secretary of state before entering Congress "And that being the case, it became more clear that was my position."

Heller's comments in 2006 about supporting a woman's right to choose an abortion came when the newspaper interviewed all three candidates vying in the GOP primary to represent the state's 2nd Congressional District. Another story previewing the race from the Reno News and Review also described Heller as "supporting abortion rights."

"I've always said, even when I was back in Nevada, that my personal feelings were that I was pro-life, but I had a libertarian view on it," Heller said. "It wasn't an issue that was in the forefront when I was in the state of Nevada. Obviously, it's come to the forefront when I've been here in Washington D.C."

Heller recently was appointed to serve out the remainder of John Ensign's term in the U.S. Senate, and he is seeking a full term in the 2012 election. He beat Sharron Angle to keep his House seat in 2006 by 421 votes.

David Damore, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said that the 2006 primary explains the change in Heller's stance on abortion.

"She ran against him in that primary in `06 and almost beat him. And ever since then, he's taken a hard tack to the right to avoid any kind of primary challenge," Damore said. "Now, that he's running statewide, we shall see how this plays."

Abortion is generally not a hot-button issue in Nevada, but it could generate considerable financial support for the candidates' campaigns. The advocacy group, Emily's List, has endorsed Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in the Senate race and has an extensive network of financial supporters.

Jeremy McNeil, executive director of Nevada Right to Life's political action committee, said that Heller was viewed as an unknown commodity before he entered Congress, but the group is thrilled with his voting record.

"I don't know what caused the difference. I know that as a congressman he is faced with more of those issues than he was as secretary of state," McNeil said. "During his time in Congress, he may have honed his thoughts on the issues and maybe has seen them from a different light."

Heller did not answer directly whether he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the court decision that legalized abortion throughout the United States.

"I don't spend much time worrying about that because I don't believe there will ever be legislation that's going to determine this issue in the future," Heller said. "This is something that will be decided by the courts and so it's nothing I see myself getting involved in. It's a court issue, not a legislative issue."

Heller said he has received little feedback from Nevada voters about his votes relating to abortion.

"I think right now most Nevadans are more concerned about fiscal issues and have always been more concerned about fiscal issues," Heller said.

He received a 100 percent rating from the advocacy group National Right to Life in his second term and during the current Congress. In his first term, he received a 71 percent rating as a result of his votes for enhancing stem cell research, which the advocacy group opposed.

The Associated Press