I have been a friend and supporter of Senator Ben Nelson since I met him at a fundraiser in 1994. Nebraska was lucky to have Nelson as both a governor and a U.S. Senator. I regard him as a great guy and a conscientious public servant.
I just finished reading his book on the U.S. Senate and I would highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in government and politics. Nelson gives you an inside, behind the scenes look at how the U.S. Senate works — when it works. He also has a series of prescriptions on how to break the gridlock.
When Nelson was in the U.S. Senate, he was one of a handful of centrist senators from both parties who held the balance of power in that body. It gave Nelson and his fellow moderates great influence in passing legislation. Perhaps the best part of the book was when Nelson described his behind the scenes negotiations with the likes of Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and other senators.
Nelson was part of the negotiations that resulted in the passage of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. In 2001, Nelson cut a deal with Cheney to reduce the cost of the tax cuts from $1.6 trillion to $1.45 trillion. Cheney wrote the numbers $1.6 trillion and $1.25 trillion on a napkin, suggesting a middle ground compromise. Nelson took the offer back to his moderate colleagues and they agreed to that figure.
Two years later, Nelson and Senator Susan Collins successfully inserted into the tax cut bill a rescue package for state and local government who were strapped for funds after 9/11. Interestingly enough, then Governor Mike Johanns and Senator Chuck Hagel criticized the money for state and local governments, even though Johanns used the funds to balance the state budget.
Nelson responded to Hagel’s unfair criticism by saying this about the 1996 Senate election: “Well, I got over losing. But I guess he hasn’t gotten over winning.”
Nelson’s next interesting encounter with the Bush Administration was when he was offered the Secretary of Agriculture post shortly after the 2004 elections. The Nebraska Senator declined what would be a prestigious job because the Bush Administration planned to cut spending on agriculture and Nelson didn’t want to give the GOP a Senate seat. What’s more, Nelson said he enjoyed his duties in the Senate and liked working with his colleagues.
Nelson was once again in the center of things in 2005 when the Bush Administration nominated John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and nominated a large number of right wing lower court judges. Nelson and a bi-partisan gang of senators cut a deal that laid the path for the confirmation of Roberts and Alito and the rejection of the extreme nominees. The agreement also preserved the filibuster for judicial nominees. (McConnell blew up the deal in 2017 in order to pack the Supreme Court with three radicals.)
Ben Nelson went on to play an equally pivotal role during the Obama presidency. He was a major player in the negotiations that led to the passage of the 2009 Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act.
The Nebraska Senator teamed up with three moderate GOP senators to pave the way for the passage of the Recovery Act. Nelson and his GOP colleagues had a top line cost figure of $830 billion and asked for money for rural hospitals. The Recovery Act at the time was the most progressive legislation since the New Deal and it ended the Bush recession.
Similarly, Nelson’s support was crucial for the passage of the ACA. In this instance, he requested that the Medicaid expansion be largely funded by the federal government. As a former governor, Nelson didn’t like unfunded federal mandates. Moreover, Nelson makes it perfectly clear that the “Cornhusker Kickback” was a placeholder for federal funding of the Medicaid expansion and never became law.
At the end of the book, Nelson made a series of proposals to make the Senate a functional body again. It largely boiled down to maintaining the filibuster rule and recommending that senators spend more time together and get to know each other as people.
In my opinion, this is a great book and Nelson was an excellent senator. In all of these instances, Nelson had a good faith offer in his pocket and he negotiated intelligently to get things done. I believe that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema could learn something from Nelson. Perhaps I should send them the book.
Nebraska and the country was lucky to have Ben Nelson. There would’ve been no Recovery Act and no ACA without his leadership. Thanks to his courageous votes, we recovered from the Bush recession, insured 30 million additional Americans and implemented pre-existing condition protections. If Don Stenberg had won in 2000 or Pete Ricketts had won in 2006, this would’ve never happened. Thanks to Nelson, the U.S. is a much better country. That will be his legacy.