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U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto speaks during the Nevada Democratic Party election night event at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) walked a fine line between embracing and keeping herself at arm’s length from the Nevada Democratic Party one month after Democratic Socialist candidates took over the party’s leadership, touting the party’s prospects while also saying that she “believes in capitalism.”

“I am confident that the Nevada Democrats—that we—will run strong campaigns up and down the ticket in 2022,” she said in her first comments after the state Democratic Party’s recent leadership takeover by members of the Democratic Socialists of America, which typically oppose capitalism. 

Her comments came in an interview with The Nevada Independent that covered several issues, including her support for boosting the corporate tax rate to pay for overhauling the nation's infrastructure. She also said she backs bringing back earmarks and enforcing the talking filibuster. She also discussed her push to keep nuclear waste out of Yucca Mountain "once and for all."

Cortez Masto’s 2022 re-election could be one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races of the cycle. In the first quarter of the year, she raised $2.3 million, a Nevada record for federal office this early in the campaign cycle.

Both President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton before him only won the state by 2.5 percentage points, a close margin that has invited the attention of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which sees the Senate GOP’s path back to the majority running through Nevada. 

The NRSC has sought to paint Cortez Masto with the same brush as the state party's leaders, including highlighting North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee's announcement last week that he became a Republican because of the party's leftward shift. 

When asked if a recent party fundraising note in which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), the progressive rising star, extolled the virtues of Democratic Socialism would hurt her efforts to repel the GOP attacks, Cortez Masto said she supports capitalism.

“Listen, I believe in capitalism,” Cortez Masto said. “I believe we need to make sure our economy works for everyone.”

She also said she supported raising the corporate tax rate to pay for Biden’s massive $2 trillion infrastructure proposal

The president has proposed paying for the proposal by raising the corporate tax to 28 percent from 21 percent, which would pay for the measure over 15 years. The package also would make it harder for multinational corporations to shield profits abroad and would impose a global minimum tax of 21 percent on foreign companies. 

The offset would have the effect of  scaling back the corporate tax cut passed by Republicans and former President Donald Trump in 2017. Under that law, the corporate tax rate was reduced to 21 percent from 35 percent. 

“I did not support the Republicans tax cut plan that they put forward,” Cortez Masto said. “They cut the corporate tax rate by 14 percent, even corporations weren't asking for that much to be cut. So I believe there is an opportunity to really kind of take a look at that, to take a look at multinational corporations...to help us provide a pay for the infrastructure plan.”

While she believes the package should be — at least in part — paid for, she does not think the burden should be borne by working families.

"I do not believe that the funding should be on the backs of our families and those middle-class workers and  blue-collar workers; that should not be the case," Cortez Masto said. "It should be just the opposite." 

“They are the ones really that are the backbone of our infrastructure and building it,” she added.

Biden said last week that he was willing to negotiate on the corporate tax rate after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said that he would not support an increase to 28 percent, but rather only to 25 percent. 

Senate Democrats currently control only 50 of the 100 votes in the chamber, and every member’s support is needed to pass any legislation. Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also president of the Senate, has broken tie votes, which allowed Democrats to pass a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill in March.

Manchin published an op-ed last week in which he repeated that he would not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. Cortez Masto wants the Senate to enforce the talking filibuster, requiring senators objecting to legislation to take to the Senate floor and talk in order to block legislation. Currently, senators may filibuster legislation without showing up on the floor at all, and instead need only to register their opposition. Most legislation needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Manchin has previously said he also supports requiring a talking filibuster.

Cortez Masto would not say whether she talked to Manchin about the filibuster. She was one of a handful of senators who helped persuade Manchin in March to vote for a Democratic amendment on extending unemployment benefits as part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic bill. 

But she argued that Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), were using the filibuster to hold up an agenda that she believes is wanted by most voters. That includes bills to enhance voting rights, expand access to health care and address climate change.

“My conversations with my colleagues, I'm going to keep private,” she said. “But to me filibuster reform is important.” 

"Being there for four years now, moving on to my fifth year, it's very clear to me that Mitch McConnell has made it his plan to weaponize the filibuster to block progress on voting rights, on healthcare reform, on climate change on so many issues and policies that are good for this country," she continued, adding that the Senate GOP leaders should not have the power to block bipartisan legislation.

Cortez Masto also said she supports members of Congress being allowed to direct federal spending to projects in their states and districts, also known as earmarks.

“I know that earmarks are important for crucial projects across this country, including in the state of Nevada,” Cortez Masto said. “I also believe we can pursue earmarks in a manner that is transparent and accountable with conditions that prevent any abuse of the use and direction of those funds.”

The argument echoes that of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). He said that when Congress gave up its prerogative to direct spending to projects, it relinquished part of its power of the purse to the White House, which would make those spending decisions at the agency level. 

Earmarks were banned beginning in 2011, when Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) first became House speaker following a few high-profile scandals, including the construction of a bridge in Alaska that was dubbed “the bridge to nowhere.”

But Republicans have changed their tune and the House GOP recently voted to bring them back. Rep, Mark Amodei (R-NV) recently told The Nevada Independent that he supports them.

“I think the money's gonna get spent one way or another and for Congress not to, since we're the ones who appropriate, participate in that is a dumb thing,” Amodei said.

Cortez Masto also reiterated her opposition to building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. She said she had received assurances from Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm that the Biden administration does not plan to pursue the Yucca project even though, by law, it is the only place where a repository could be built.

Granholm, who attended the White House daily press briefing last week to discuss the infrastructure package, was asked what the plan was for nuclear waste as Yucca appears to be off the table.

“There has to be a consent-based process” to find a Yucca alternative, Granholm said. “We are beginning that work inside the Department of Energy. We have to find a solution, but it has to be based on community agreement.”

She said there was no current timetable for an announcement. 

Last month, Cortez Masto and other members of the delegation introduced legislation that would require consent from state, local and tribal governments to construct a national nuclear waste repository, including at Yucca Mountain.

“I'm determined to end Yucca Mountain once and for all, and the legislation that we put forward requiring the consent of state, local and tribal governments will stop it,” Cortez Masto said.

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