Sen. Ben Nelson Faces Backlash Over His Vote for Senate Health Care Bill

December 21, 2009 - 9:24 AM
Nebraska's Republican governor was concerned about expanded Medicaid costs in the proposed Senate health care bill, and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) says that's what led to a compromise, in which the federal government will cover Nebraska's estimated $45 million share over a decade.
Sen. Ben Nelson

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., arrives for a cloture vote on the Democrats’ health care bill early Monday morning, Dec. 21, 2009. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Omaha, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska's Republican governor was concerned about expanded Medicaid costs in the proposed Senate health care bill, and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) says that’s what led to a compromise, in which the federal government will cover Nebraska’s estimated $45 million share over a decade.
 
Gov. Dave Heineman "contacted me and he said this is another unfunded federal mandate and it's going to stress the state budget, and I agreed with him," said the Nebraska Democrat on Sunday. Nelson himself served as Nebraska’s governor in the 1990s.
 
"I said to the leader (Sen. Harry Reid) and others that this is something that has to be fixed. I didn't participate in the way it was fixed."
 
But Heineman expressed anything but gratitude, saying he had nothing to do with the compromise and calling the overhaul bill "bad news for Nebraska and bad news for America."
 
"Nebraskans did not ask for a special deal, only a fair deal," Heineman said in a statement Sunday.
 
In response, Nelson fired off a letter Sunday to Heineman saying he's prepared to ask that the provision covering Nebraska's Medicaid share "be removed from the amendment in conference, if it is your desire."
 
The criticism is only a taste of what Nelson has received since announcing Saturday that he would become the 60th vote needed to advance the landmark legislation.
 
Despite the perks Nelson managed to garner for Nebraska in finally agreeing to support the overhaul bill -- such as increased federal funds to cover his state's cost of covering an expanded Medicaid population at what one Democratic official estimated at $45 million over a decade -- the backlash from those who wanted Nelson to hold a hard line against the measure was immediate.
 
Abortion foes howled in protest. Nebraska Right to Life, which has long endorsed Nelson, issued a scathing statement that dubbed Nelson a traitor. The state's Catholic bishops followed Sunday with a statement that they were "extremely disappointed" in him.
 
The chairman of Nebraska's Republican Party declared Nelson's decision to be the end of his political career in Nebraska, and within hours of Nelson's announcement, the state GOP launched a Web site, www.givebentheboot.com, to collect funds to oust the Democrat in the 2012 election.
 
In an Omaha rally Sunday hastily thrown together by a group called Americans for Prosperity of Nebraska, former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee urged people unhappy with the compromise to express their displeasure at the polls in November.
 
Huckabee spoke before a raucous crowd of about 1,800, many of whom held signs denouncing the health care reform plan. Rallygoers often shouted "Recall!" and "Liar!" at the mention of Nelson's name, and Huckabee himself seemed to compare Nelson to Judas in the biblical story of Jesus' betrayal, saying the last time a deal was struck like the compromise in the health care overhaul, "30 pieces of silver exchanged hands."
 
The compromise tries to maintain a strict separation between taxpayer funds and private premiums that would pay for abortion coverage. It would also allow states to restrict abortion coverage in new insurance marketplaces.
 
Those at the rally who spoke to an Associated Press reporter weren't satisfied with that language, and were prepared to vote against Nelson in 2012.
 
David Madsen of Nebraska City and his wife, Diane, said they had voted for Nelson in his previous Senate campaigns and now feel betrayed.
 
"I will actively be involved in my own community to lead the fight against Ben Nelson," Madsen said, mainly because of abortion language in the bill.
 
Nelson isn't taking the backlash lying down.
 
"This is all orchestrated," Nelson said Sunday. "It's so thinly disguised ... it's almost laughable.
 
Nelson, the lone Democrat in Nebraska's five-member congressional delegation, told The AP that a high-ranking Republican operative sent out partisan talking points to conservative talk show hosts and columnists and they "almost read it verbatim.
 
"We have the e-mails that show it," he said.
 
Nelson said he was doing what he could to stop the double-digit rise in health care costs, as well as cover those Nebraskans who can't get coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.
 
The senator does have his supporters.
 
The Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, which advocates for the poor, praised Nelson's decision and urged people to thank him.
 
The Nebraska Democratic Party chairman called Nelson's decision "courageous" and dismissed Republican criticism of it.
 
"Whatever he did, they would be critical," Vic Covalt said. "They have no program and they have nothing to offer us other than more of the same."