After early setbacks, Nevada's sophomore senator settles in

LAS VEGAS -- Grim-faced senators, many in the middle of grueling re-election campaigns, filed out of the Senate chamber on a Friday afternoon this fall after casting their final votes of the week.

Suddenly, almost bounding out of a side door, dressed in slacks with a pair of sunglasses dangling from his sports shirt, Sen. John Ensign appeared.

As the 44-year-old Republican from Nevada left the Capitol and began walking down its marble steps, there was a shout.

"Hey, dress code!"

It was Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in suit and tie, ribbing Ensign about his casual attire.

Ensign just smiled and kept walking.

There's a bounce in Ensign's step as he nears the end of his second year in the Senate.

He got off to a rough start this year and endured what he described as the worst moment of his career when the Senate voted in July to authorize Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste storage.

But once the Yucca Mountain vote was behind him, Ensign moved on and made inroads on other issues, such as prescription drug reform and aviation safety.

A highlight occurred when Ensign and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., won final passage of a major Clark County land bill on the final day the Senate was in regular session.

And for the first time since 1994, Ensign did not have to campaign in an election year, a bonus for a man who places family high among personal priorities.

"It is absolutely ... ," Ensign said. He started chuckling, and never came up with a word to describe the relief of being off the campaign trail.

Considering how this year began, it might have been a good thing Ensign does not face voters again until 2006.

In January, he angrily canceled a Las Vegas trip he organized for a group of House members after details leaked to the media. Nevada gambling executives were dismayed by Ensign's outburst, which created unwanted additional publicity.

After originally refusing to be interviewed, Ensign described the trip as a means to educate members of Congress and their staffs about the gambling industry.

But when news reports about the trip appeared, Ensign said some of the congressmen became concerned about how a visit to Las Vegas might be perceived by their constituents. Ensign then recommended canceling the trip, and complained the gambling industry is "very difficult to represent."

Then in late February, Ensign dropped out of sight for two weeks without explanation. He pleaded with constituents to respect his privacy, but never disclosed the reasons for his absence.

"I have no plans to ever explain," he said recently. "I was dealing with some personal things, and that's all there was to it."

Then came the low point, when the Senate voted 60-39 to approve President Bush's recommendation to develop a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Although he had urged Nevada voters to elect him to the Senate because he would have a better chance than his opponent of recruiting Republican votes against Yucca Mountain, Ensign came up empty.

Only two other Republicans voted against Yucca Mountain, which is the same number as before Ensign joined the Senate.

Ensign describes the Yucca Mountain vote as his biggest political disappointment, but said he is not concerned about the vote's potential impact on his career.

"During that fight, I think we gained respect from people on both sides of the aisle," Ensign said. "My record, over the six years, will speak for itself; and I will be able to run on my record."

Shortly after the Yucca Mountain vote, Ensign and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., proposed legislation that would set a $120 monthly limit on prescription drug costs for most senior citizens.

The Senate rejected the bill, but it received more votes than two other similar measures,and Ensign plans to make prescription drug costs his top priority in 2003.

On another front, Ensign sought and received assurances from the Transportation Security Administration that a year-end deadline on new baggage screening requirements would be flexible. If strictly enforced, the deadline could result in lengthy delays at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, agrees that Yucca Mountain will not seriously damage Ensign if he seeks re-election in four years.

"I don't think anybody in the state actually thought Ensign and Reid would actually win (on Yucca Mountain)," Herzik said.

More likely to cause problems for Ensign, Herzik said, is the senator's tendency to be unavailable.

It's not just the mysterious disappearance in February, Herzik said. Ensign rarely shows up for weekend political events in Nevada, and frequently declines to be interviewed during congressional breaks.

"I don't know that the public will be so forgiving of him separating so firmly his private and public life," Herzik said. "People want to know where their senators are. If you say, 'I'm with my family,' that's a tough one to keep trotting out."

Ensign acknowledges he no longer goes to many Nevada events he attended when he was seeking re-election every two years in the House.

"I try not to go to the same dinners and those kinds of things because how does that make you a better senator?" he said. "I have to really work hard at balancing life. One of the things that has allowed me to balance is not having to campaign all the time. Instead of campaigning, I can spend time with my family."

Ensign said he has mellowed since he arrived in the nation's capital in January 1995. He was a member of the historic freshman class that gave Republicans their first majority in the House in 40 years.

"I came in very zealous," he said. "But I have tempered that with an understanding of how to get things done and not just make issues. I think I know more what I believe."

An example of Ensign's evolution is his relationship with Reid. Ensign seemed determined to oust Reid from his earliest days in the House, and animosity between both men escalated until they ran against each other in 1998.

When he lost by a scant 428 votes in one of the closest races in the history of the U.S. Senate, Ensign figured his political career was over.

"I just didn't think there would be any more opportunities for me," he said. "I thought Richard Bryan would run for re-election, and I was not going to run against him."

But even before Bryan opted not to run, Ensign and Reid were talking regularly.

"It started when I called him to tell him I was conceding (the 1998 election)," Ensign said. "We struck up a professional relationship which has developed into a friendship. We talk now 10 to 15 times a week, and that's a conservative estimate."

Since his election to the House in 1994, Ensign has been considered a potential Nevada gubernatorial candidate. If he chose not to seek re-election to the Senate, Ensign probably would be favored to become the Republican nominee for governor in 2006.

While Ensign says it would be to be governor, he makes it clear that he does not have his eyes set on Carson City.

A turning point might have occurred in August when Ensign and his wife, Darlene, joined two other members of the Senate Banking Committee and their wives on a trip to the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.

Ensign said the trip made him realize the power and influence of the Senate on financial affairs overseas.

"My place right now and for the foreseeable future is in the U.S. Senate, and to give that up would be very difficult," Ensign said. "It's incredible to be here. I absolutely love being in the United States Senate."


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