Nelson welcomes role as swing vote

2009-09-03T00:30:00Z Nelson welcomes role as swing voteBY DON WALTON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
September 03, 2009 12:30 am  • 

NEAR SCHRAMM PARK -- A fawn glides across the gravel road as the tree-lined pathway bends upward toward the cabin.

Two horses watch from across the fence in the stillness of this gentle September morning.

Inside the cabin, nestled in the wooded hills above the Platte River, is Sen. Ben Nelson, dressed in work clothes, wearing no socks, sitting in an easy chair with two dogs lying at his side.

It's a long way from the uproar and tension of public meetings crowded by a thousand people who are anxious, often alarmed and sometimes angry about health care reform.

Nelson, the lone Democratic member of Nebraska's congressional delegation, is under siege from opponents of President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.

Health care TV ads have targeted him for weeks, prompting the senator to respond with a TV ad campaign of his own.

And today, opponents of Obama's cap and trade proposal to reduce carbon emissions will hold a rally in Lincoln directed at Nelson.

"I hate to tell people they're wasting their time and money," Nelson said Wednesday as he sipped on a cup of coffee and dodged a call on his cell phone.

Efforts to use power or pressure to influence him will not work, he said.

But he's open to "logic, reasoning and good arguments" as he reaches his decisions.

Fact is Nelson has serious reservations about Democratic health care reform legislation and Obama's cap and trade plan, and is considered an unlikely vote for either in its present form.

Fact is he's also aware much of the uproar over health care reform has been prompted and promoted by media voices on the right.

"I suspect a great deal of it is," he said.

"But I also recognize there are other people who are concerned on their own."

Some partisan opponents simply "want to make the Obama administration fail," Nelson said.

The flak encountered by members of Congress during their August recess may in the end assist health care reform rather than scuttle it, he said.

"It always was going to be difficult," Nelson said. "In a way, this may increase its chances of passage by making the plan more realistic."

When Congress returns to Washington next week, Obama can help, Nelson said.

"He needs to tell us what are the parameters of a plan he can accept. We need maybe a little bit more clarity so we can determine what is possible."

The White House has sent mixed signals about its commitment to the contentious proposal for a public option, or government insurance alternative, Nelson said.

It's time for clarity.

Nelson is wary of the public option proposal.

And he appears to be increasingly attracted to an incremental approach.

"I think there is the potential for a bipartisan solution that is incremental," Nelson said.

"Consensus could be achieved now on some important proposals that would reduce costs."

Nelson said he's open to the idea of universal coverage, "as long as it's an insurance solution rather than a political or governmental solution."

Those who cannot afford to purchase health insurance now could receive government financial assistance, perhaps through "favorable tax treatment," in helping pay their premiums, he said.

Nelson is "very concerned" about a proposal to expand Medicaid coverage.

"That's very expensive, and it could have serious consequences for the state," he said.

A new unfunded federal mandate could recreate "the Pac-man who ate the state budget" when he was governor, Nelson said.

It will be difficult for him to vote for health care reform that does not have bipartisan support, Nelson said.

"You will get better legislation if it's bipartisan," he said. "And it would have more credibility."

So how does this end?

"I see two endings.

"One is we find areas we can agree upon and we begin to do things incrementally, taking more of an insurance approach, not a government approach.

"Or it implodes.

"With great disappointment for people on one side and to the apparent glee of those on the other side."

Despite the pressure cooker he finds himself occupying now as a swing Democratic senator, Nelson said, he welcomes the opportunity to help shape a solution and cast a vote that matters.

"I went to Washington to make a difference," he said.

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

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