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D.C. Download: Cortez Masto sounds off on abortion, immigration, the Supreme Court

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum

As Congress continued its recess, both of Nevada’s senators stopped by the Legislature to tout Democratic policy goals achieved in the last Congress.

Cortez Masto on affordable housing, abortion, the Supreme Court, and immigration

With a number of legal issues coming to the fore in Nevada and across the country — ongoing litigation over the authorization of abortion pill mifepristone, new regulations governing land use and renewable energy production, immigration and the ethics of the behavior of Supreme Court justices among them — it’s always helpful to talk to a lawyer. 

My colleague Jacob Solis participated in a roundtable with Cortez Masto on Tuesday after her speech to the Legislature, and picked her brain on those topics. The lightly edited Q&A below is from that conversation.

Affordable housing

Q: How do you plan to address affordable housing?

A: How do we, at a federal level … incentivize the financing for the builders so it can be built in a cheaper way, so the house is more affordable? And then how do we provide incentives or support for the buyer? That legislation — we've had hearings on that in Senate Finance and in Banking and Housing already this term, because our focus — in a bipartisan way — is how do we pass legislation that incentivizes that affordable housing? 

A couple of examples: Low Income Housing Tax Credit. It's been out there; we need to do more. That helps with our builders. Another area that I've been focused on [is] the Federal Home Loan Bank system. Their mission is to support affordable housing and our local communities. When I first got to the Senate … and looked at our Federal Home Loan Bank in San Francisco — we’re in that region — we got zero … And so I introduced legislation and started pushing on the Federal Home Loan Bank, particularly of San Francisco, and questioning them and having meetings with them saying ‘Why aren't you delivering on your mission that you have?’ 

There's more work to be done, but they have since not only allocated money here for affordable housing, they are creating a targeted fund for the state of Nevada, putting $4.5 million into it for Nevada. They have also increased the grant size for affordable housing and the [Federal Housing Finance Agency], who has oversight over the Federal Home Loan Bank system, is looking at that and bringing transparency. They're in the middle of their investigation right now, and I'm looking forward to seeing that report.

There's a combination of things that have to happen around affordable housing, but that's just the federal piece. We need our partners. We need the state. We need local government. We need everybody at the table. 

Q: With housing, in many cases, you have zoning. And you have a lot of NIMBY-ism associated with that. Is there anything you can do from your position to fix those issues or at least put some pressure on local governments to take away those things that can really be barriers to building affordable housing?

A: It’s challenging. You can't dictate zoning at a federal level — I know that. But what I can do is put incentives there to zone in a certain way.

Let me give you an example. I know for the purposes of some of our affordable housing, which is workforce housing or senior housing, sometimes there's a lack of transit. And so I have introduced legislation and worked on passing it with Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA). What it does is it forces [Housing and Urban Development] and the Department of Transportation to work together so that when we build these affordable homes, we're building them near public transit so there's access. We're getting local governments to think and incentivizing that nexus. 

People need to understand Nevada, particularly in Southern Nevada, it's 24 hours when you're working. You could either be the day shift, the swing shift or the graveyard shift. We've got to build accommodations and housing and public transit — and quite honestly, health care — that all is together in this nexus. That's the conversations I've had with the secretary of HUD, the secretary of Transportation, who get it [and] who understand this is where the legislation is going. 

Abortion and the Supreme Court

Q: On mifepristone, you've said that states shouldn't ignore the ruling and it should go through the court process. But if the courts start dismantling the administrative state and are limiting the FDA’s ability to regulate drugs, does Congress or the executive branch need to step in at that point, if the judiciary doesn’t let the executive branch do their jobs?

A: We have to let the courts play out, because you're talking about one case in Texas, but we also have a Washington state case that is just the opposite. So we see that play out. Knowing that there's a conflict — as an attorney, I know — it should head up to the Supreme Court and have a hearing relatively quickly. 

To me, this is outrageous that we're even having this discussion. And more importantly, it's not just about this drug. By denying access, it is going to prevent women from having access to reproductive freedom, and the needs that they have. This is a perfect example of what the far right extreme — these electeds — have been doing, and I've been watching for the last six years — stacking the courts and then claiming that we won't repeal Roe v. Wade because it's precedent, and then repealing it, and then saying we'll leave it to the states to decide, and then now saying no, it's not the states' rights to decide it. This is outrageous.

This is a call to action — not just fighting it in the courts. I trust the DOJ to take this on and do what's right here. But it's a call to action for all of us to pay attention to what's going on. It matters that we turn out and vote. It matters that we fight this in the court. It matters that the administration does what they can. But this is really a call to action because this is an attack on women's rights in this country.

Q: There's a ProPublica report on Justice Clarence Thomas [violating ethics through accepting gifts from a Republican megadonor]. The Judiciary Committee has already called on the chief justice to investigate, but is there any prerogative for Congress to look into these ethical allegations? And are you concerned that it’s undermining trust in the Supreme Court?

A: I think it's outrageous. You don't even have to be an attorney to see how outrageous it is that ethics rules apply to every single judge in this country but the judges sitting on the United States Supreme Court … It's ridiculous, and it is time for the court to start addressing [that] and bringing forward guidelines and follow the ethics rules and the judicial canons that other judges follow across the country. The State of Nevada, for our judges, has judicial canons. The Supreme Court of the State of Nevada follows judicial canons. So our Supreme Court should have the same requirements.

We can't dictate to them their ethical standards, but their budget comes before us. And one of my colleagues, [Sen.] Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), is seriously looking at how he can utilize that process to have this conversation with these justices, saying you’ve got to do something …

[People] should be concerned. I'm concerned as an attorney. We should have a judiciary that is fair and balanced, that looks at all the equities, that doesn't engage in ex parte communication, that is very careful and cautious about when you're out, who you're talking to — that somebody's not trying to indirectly or directly petition you for some favor or curry favor with you. Every judge across this country has to do that. Yes, we should be concerned that the Supreme Court of the United States is not engaging in protections against them.


Q: At this time last year, Title 42 [the public health policy that allowed the administration to swiftly remove migrants] was a topic of discussion. Are you any more or less concerned with the situation at the border now than you were last year?

A: Here's what I know — and this is why our Congress plays an absolute role in this. We have a broken immigration system that needs to be fixed. And there is legislation for us to work in a bipartisan way to fix our broken immigration system — to address the Dreamers that are here, the TPS recipients that are here in our community, the people that already live in our community that want to live here, work here, pay taxes, help grow our economy — that is separate than what's happening at the border. 

We all should want to secure our borders and put resources there to ensure that we're doing everything to address the drug trafficking that, I know as a former attorney general, comes across the southern border, the human trafficking, the weapons trafficking, money laundering. That was one of the first things [I did] when I got to the Senate, because of the work that I did here as AG, … was to reach out to the Border Patrol and say what resources do you need to address these issues? 

The funding sources that we have provided, and will continue to provide for the southern border, absolutely, we need to continue. But you can do both of those. They're not mutually exclusive. You can address the border security, but also, at the same time, fix a broken immigration system that treats people with dignity and look to passing bipartisan legislation — that has already passed out of the House [last term] for our Dreamers and TPS recipients, and address both of them. 

The challenge and the frustration I have is the Republicans play politics with the border. And the Democrats sometimes are too afraid to even talk about the border. We’ve got to do both. We can lean into both. But we’ve got to talk about it, and we’ve got to start fixing the system. We see the symptoms of this broken immigration system, and it's time to stop playing politics with people's lives.

Q: What are the odds of getting a legitimate bill on immigration?

A:  [There] is one that has been worked on that I am familiar with. This is the one that Sens. [Kyrsten] Sinema (I-AZ) and [Thom] Tillis (R-NC) really looked at bringing a bipartisan group together to address not only just asylum issues [and] immigration issues, but also border issues and processing, and different things that we can do. It's a really good start. And that's where we should move forward. But again, this is one where either Republican leadership stopped it or some of my colleagues are too afraid to do something about it. But I think it's something that we should all get back in a room and really focus on how we get this done.

Q: In 2013, John Boehner didn’t bring an immigration bill up because of the Freedom Caucus. Do you see Kevin McCarthy having more fortitude than Boehner did to bring something up?

A: What I see in the House leadership, and that far right that is dictating it, is just pure politics. [It’s] not about good governing, not about doing what's right for the country and the people that live here. And I do think it is a challenge to even get good bipartisan legislation that may pass on the Senate side through the House, unless there is some sort of change in the sense that Democrats, working with some moderate Republicans who aren't the right wing extremists, really focus on getting it done. But the challenge is what you said — whether the [Speaker] brings it forward and allows it to move forward. And I think it is a challenge right now.

Mining and environmental regulation

Q: In terms of Nevada being a leader in lithium, it seems like when these lithium projects come along, there's always an environmental objection. Is there some need to modify federal law in order to prioritize the mining of these critical minerals so that batteries and other accessories can be created?

CCM: We've already — in the legislation that we've passed — prioritized that, for the very reasons that you just talked about. There is this way to responsibly mine. This isn't the mining of the Comstock Lode …The new technology provides the opportunity to responsibly mine. When we are talking about lithium mining, or any other hardrock mining that we have in this state … We have the opportunity to really focus on addressing those critical minerals we need for this country, for our future to be independent of other countries and lean into that clean energy. 

There's funding to address responsible mining, and there’s funding to address the environmental issues. That's why for me, it always starts with bringing a coalition of folks together. … We should be working together to really bring that focus on how we not only mine the essential minerals we need for our future to address the clean-energy economy, but be responsibly mined so that we're also protecting the environment for outdoor use is also essential.

Health care for DACA recipients

The Biden administration announced their intent Thursday to propose a rule extending Medicaid and Affordable Care Act coverage to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, an enormous policy victory for a community in Nevada that’s estimated to be nearly 50 percent uninsured.

Of Nevada’s estimated 210,000 undocumented population,  about 20,000 are estimated to be eligible for DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The proposed Department of Health and Human Services rule would categorize DACA recipients as “lawfully present,” making them eligible for health care through Medicaid or the ACA. The federal relief comes as state lawmakers in Nevada consider expanding Medicaid coverage to include all undocumented immigrants.

The announcement was welcomed by Democrats and immigration groups, including Cortez Masto, who had called on the Biden administration to make this change in a November 2022 letter. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) was a signatory as well.

“I have been working with the Biden administration to open health care exchanges to DACA recipients, and I’m pleased to see this effort pay off today,” Cortez Masto tweeted. “For many DACA recipients, America is the only home they’ve ever known - and I will always stand up to support and protect them.”

The Biden administration’s move was also praised by the Nevada Latino Legislative Caucus and immigrant rights group Make the Road Nevada.

“The Nevada Latino Legislative Caucus applauds President Biden for his urge to open health care to Dreamers and receive the services they deserve,” state Sen. Fabian Doñate said in a statement. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Around the Capitol

  • Rosen won recognition from the White House, which named swift implementation of her Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act — a bill of hers to improve data collection on maternal health outcomes that passed last term — as a tool to improve reproductive rights.
  • Rosen’s office unveiled the Washoe County Lands Bill, which is now in a public comment period. Cortez Masto’s office is expected to follow with the latest Clark County Lands Bill later this term.
  • The Department of the Interior announced hundreds of millions in new investments in the Colorado River Basin, including a new conservation initiative for Lake Mead.
  • Nevada will receive $63 million from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds to upgrade and replace water infrastructure across the state.
  • The Biden administration announced new proposed tailpipe and clean energy standards for car models in 2027 and beyond — which Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) had called for earlier in the month.
  • All five of Nevada’s Democrats in Congress joined an amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the Fifth Circuit calling on the court to stay a federal judge’s ruling barring the FDA’s approval of mifepristone.

Notable and Quotable

“This judge's ruling is bullshit.”

— Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, on a federal judge’s ruling ending the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion pill mifepristone


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