Bob Kerrey

Bob Kerrey talks on the phone after deciding to enter the 2012 Senate race on Feb. 29, 2012. (JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star file photo)

JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star file photo

OMAHA -- Bob Kerrey has a big idea he's been refining in remarks to gatherings of young Nebraskans and at recent fundraising receptions in Lincoln and Omaha.

"I think there are 60 votes in the Senate to solve the budget challenge and to secure Medicare and Social Security," Kerrey said Saturday.

"The Democratic and Republican caucuses are the problem."

Those organized party caucuses stand in the way of bipartisan cooperation on difficult problems that continue to grow larger and become more urgent as the Congress remains paralyzed by partisan gridlock, Kerrey said.

Built-in partisan division has become so acute, Kerrey said, that it led to "that appalling moment when the stand-off over the need to raise the debt ceiling pushed the country to the edge of economic disaster" last year.

It's time to have a conversation about whether to consider a constitutional amendment that would replace partisan election of members of Congress with the non-partisan feature of the legislative system modeled in Nebraska, he said.

Not the one-house portion of it, Kerrey said, but the non-partisan aspect championed by legendary Nebraska Sen. George W. Norris.

When he was the Democratic governor of Nebraska from 1983 to 1987, Kerrey said, he was able to achieve legislative results that would not have been possible if the Legislature had been divided and organized by party. 

If a constitutional change is needed to fix the Congress, Kerrey said, perhaps "part of the conversation" should include whether to incorporate a provision overturning the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that virtually eliminated limits on campaign spending by corporations and labor unions and a proposal to impose term limits on members of Congress.

Kerrey, the presumptive Democratic Senate nominee, outlined his views over a cheeseburger and onion rings at Louie M's Burger Lust Cafe on Vinton Street in south Omaha after participating in the big Cinco de Mayo festival and parade along South 24th Street, in the heart of Omaha's Hispanic neighborhoods.

Later, Kerrey joined Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia in a meeting with student veterans on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus, then addressed about 400 Nebraska Democrats at the party's annual Morrison-Exon Dinner on Saturday evening.

Kerrey said he has watched the Republican Senate candidates "move farther to the right and stake out positions" that will make it difficult for any of them to work in a bipartisan manner.

"They're all saying cut taxes and that boxes them in," he said.

"Yes, cut the budget, but you can't solve the problem by only doing that. 

"Democrats are wrong to dig in and resist changes in Medicare," he said. "You've got to solve the underfunded liability for Medicare and Social Security. It isn't fair to people under 40 to do nothing."

Kerrey said he's seeking the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson to go to Washington to help shape bipartisan solutions to the nation's big unresolved problems, not to champion a partisan agenda or respond to party demands.

"Lots of things could be done without the unhealthy influence of the party caucuses," he said.

Kerrey said he's been encouraged by the new generation of young Nebraskans he is meeting for the first time. Kerrey's name was last on the ballot in 1994. He accepted the presidency of New School University in New York City after completion of his second Senate term in 2001.

"These young Nebraskans are less partisan and they tend to be very inclusive," Kerrey said. "They are moving into leadership and they care about community."

Speaking at the Democratic dinner in LaVista, Nelson said Kerrey is "a tough and effective negotiator" who can work across the partisan aisle.

Nelson described Republican Senate candidates Jon Bruning, Don Stenberg and Deb Fischer as "three peas in a pod who would lower taxes on the well-to-do while raising them on a million middle-income Nebraskans."

At the GOP debate earlier in the week, Nelson said in remarks prepared for the dinner, the Republican trio "couldn't name one Democrat by name who will be there next year who they could work with.

"In other words," Nelson said, "they would take more of the bitter partisanship and job-killing gridlock with them to Washington and contribute nothing to solve our problems."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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