OMAHA — The continual political impasse in Washington that lurches from crisis to crisis is damaging the United States and "weakening our standing in the world," former Sen. Ben Nelson said Thursday.

When Congress shuts down major portions of the federal government by failing to approve budget funding and raises questions about whether it will increase the U.S. debt ceiling before the nation is unable to meet its financial obligations, the world wonders "whether we can get our act together," he said.

Meanwhile, Nelson told a University of Nebraska at Omaha audience of political science students, "Our competitors are moving full-speed ahead."

"We risk losing ground while others are gaining ground," he said, all because of "a self-inflicted crisis."

Nelson, a Democrat who represented Nebraska in the Senate for 12 years before deciding not to seek a third term last year, said one major difference between this year's standoff and previous partisan battles in Congress is that staunchly conservative Republicans decided to take an existing law hostage to try to get their way.

The budget siege was triggered by GOP action attaching defunding or delay of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, to legislation that would continue to fund the federal government.

"Would Social Security be the next hostage for some ideologue?" Nelson asked. "Or civil rights? Or Medicare? Or the EPA?"

Ideologues have changed the playing field in Congress, he said.

"It's unimaginable," Nelson said, but what some ideologues may have set in motion is "the unraveling of the fabric of our government."

Still, ideology alone may not be all that is in play, he said.

Political fundraising may be the motive at times, Nelson said, along with "constituencies that are turned on (and) face time on television" for some of the politicians.

"Do they want the solution?" he asked, "or do they want the issue?"

Answering questions from students, Nelson said he hopes the Republican Party ultimately will be controlled by "those willing to work together" in the nation's interests.

"I'm a passionate moderate," he said. 

"I'm more of a centrist who wants to get things accomplished rather than someone who follows a party line or an ideological line."

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