Ben Nelson’s position shifts as Scott Brown enters Senate

Elana Schor Contributor
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His $100 million Medicaid deal alienated House Democrats and became a winning message for Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-MA). His attempt at a compromise on federal funding for abortions earned jeers from pro-life leaders. His approval rating at home dropped to a startling 42 percent.

By all accounts, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) has had a bad month. But Democrats’ uncertain path forward on health care could be a blessing in disguise for the canny Nelson, who has more than two years to rebound with Nebraska voters before his next re-election bid – and would have the freedom to vote against a health-care “sidecar” bill passed through the 50-vote reconciliation process.

“I’m not sure that the disenchantment of Nebraskans with the health-care bill is focused on Nelson overplaying his hand” on the Medicaid deal, University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor John Hibbing told The Daily Caller. “They might be a little embarrassed about that, but I think the provisions about abortion and a broader sense of government being intrusive are bigger concerns.”

Nelson’s Medicaid controversy, dubbed the “Cornhusker Kickback” and criticized even in Nebraska, began when Senate Democratic leaders courted his vote for their health-care bill by offering full federal funding for Medicaid expansion in his state alone. After a public backlash led by Nebraska’s GOP governor, however, Nelson vowed to ensure that Nebraska’s special treatment was extended to all states.

If the House takes up the Senate bill with assurances that the Nebraska deal will be fixed through reconciliation, however, Nelson could oppose that effort – which would only require 50 Democratic votes for passage – and focus on selling the positive aspects of the health bill to his state’s voters.

“The outcome he does not want is nothing” to happen this year, University of Nebraska-Omaha political science professor Randy Adkins said in an interview, “because he’s already got a big stake in this health-care bill. So I think by getting nothing, he ends up taking a lot of damage from it and getting none of the credit.”

Nelson hinted on Monday that his vote would no longer be necessary if Democrats opt for a reconciliation “sidecar” that likely would eliminate the Medicaid deal. “Those who didn’t want me to be the 60th vote get their wish,” he told Politico.

On the abortion front, Nelson came under fire from pro-life advocates after he backed watered-down language on federal funding for the procedure. Yet Nebraska Right to Life executive director Julie Schmit-Albin, who called Nelson’s abortion compromise a “craven betrayal” after he backed the Senate health-care bill last month, left the door open this week for a partial recovery of the senator’s standing.

“People will judge him by what the ultimate result is, and we’re not at the ultimate result yet,” she told The Daily Caller, adding that it’s “hard to say” whether Nelson could win back the votes of abortion critics amid the current uncertainty. For Schmit-Albin’s group, much depends on how vocally the senator fights for abortion limits added to the House health-care bill by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI).

Nelson’s troubles were fueled last week by the release of a poll, conducted for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, which found his approval rating in Nebraska falling to 42 percent. Asked whether Nelson’s vote for the Senate health-care bill would count against him in 2012, 44 percent of voters said yes.

A closer look at the nuances of the poll suggest that Nelson’s position may not be as dire as advertised. Forty-three percent of respondents to the World-Herald poll said Nelson’s health-care vote would not affect their vote or be a mildly positive influence. The World-Herald poll also gave both congressional Republicans and Democrats lower approval ratings than Nelson.

“He’s had, generally, very good standing with the voting public in Nebraska, so I think he’s pretty well-positioned despite what ruts in the road he might hit,” Robert Sittig, a retired professor at the University of Nebraska and an expert on the state’s political history, said in an interview.

“Incumbents normally have been able to establish themselves [in Nebraska] whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, so I expect he’ll be the odds-on favorite in ’12 — assuming he wants to run,” Sittig added.

The question of whether the 68-year-old Nelson will run for re-election or follow fellow Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) into retirement remains up in the air in Nebraska.

“Everybody seems to think Senator Nelson is running for re-election,” Schmit-Albin said. “I don’t think he knows that.”

Nelson’s office did not return a request for comment on his health-care message to Nebraska voters and his preferred outcomes in the Medicaid and abortion debates.