Waiting at home for Nebraska's Ben Nelson is the following message: "Merry Christmas and we thank you for your stance on pro-life issues so far, and we hope you continue to stand for what's morally correct."
Matthew Grgurich left the message Friday before attending a protest of healthcare legislation at the Democratic senator's office near the state capital. Grgurich and other anti-abortion activists were hoping Nelson would help kill sweeping healthcare legislation that would allow some coverage for abortions.
But on Saturday — after marathon talks and at least three private conversations in the past 10 days with President Barack Obama — Nelson said he would support the legislation. He said he made his decision after winning fresh concessions to limit the availability of abortions in insurance sold in newly created exchanges.
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"I know this is hard for some of my colleagues to accept and I appreciate their right to disagree. But I would not have voted for this bill without these provisions," he said at a news conference in the Capitol.
Mark Fahleson, the chairman of Nebraska's Republican Party, predicted Nelson's support for the bill and its compromise on abortion would be the end of his political career.
Americans are outraged by the legislation and "they're going to punish politicians at the polls," Fahleson said.
Grgurich and his family of registered independents have voted for Nelson for years almost solely because of his strong stance against abortion.
"If you don't respect life, you don't respect any other laws," Grgurich said.
A former insurance executive considered the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, the 69-year-old Nelson had been under considerable pressure from others in his party to provide the 60th and deciding vote for Senate passage of sweeping healthcare legislation. But supporters say that will pale in comparison to the heat he's likely to face at home for softening his position.
"He'd be toast," said Mary Jo Bousek, who joined Grgurich at the protest. "I have friends who are Republicans who voted for him because they're very pro-life."
Since his election to the Senate in 2000, Nelson has worked with Republicans on thorny issues such as taxes and judicial nominations. On his office wall is a framed yellow napkin, a memento of his negotiations with Vice President Dick Cheney over the Bush administration's 2001 tax cuts. Cheney wrote three numbers on the napkin, and the circled middle number led to the compromise Nelson helped forge when Congress later approved a $1.325 trillion tax cut.
But abortion restrictions leave little room for compromise. The failure earlier this week of Nelson's amendment to tighten funding restrictions on abortion wasn't a good sign that his Senate colleagues understand how stridently he feels about the issue, said Frank Barrett, an Omaha attorney who worked with Nelson as a state insurance regulator in the 1960s and later as an executive at Central National Insurance Group.
"Let's say (Majority Leader Harry) Reid says to him, 'You know you're not going to get anything for Nebraska if you don't come along' — that would be the worst thing in the world to do," Barrett said. "That's not going to sway him at all. As a matter of fact, it may stiffen him a little bit. I just think he thinks things out."
Since his first election to statewide office in 1990 as governor, Nelson has consistently opposed abortion. He was running for the Senate in 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a 1997 Nebraska state ban — signed into law by Nelson — on the procedure that abortion opponents call partial-birth abortion.
During his last bid for re-election in 2006, Nelson received Nebraska Right to Life's sole endorsement over his Republican challenger. So strong is Nelson's anti-abortion stance that the group's director refused Friday to speculate what might happen to his political career if he were to compromise on the health reform effort.
"I think he's drawn a line in the sand," Nebraska Right to Life director Julie Schmit-Albin said. "The guy is standing by himself right now. It's incredibly courageous ... and we want to thank him for that."
Grgurich and the others outside Nelson's office said Friday that Nebraska voters aren't likely to tolerate any equivocation on abortion.
"Pro-life support is important in this state for pro-life Dems who run for statewide office ... and there aren't too many Dems of opposing stripe who have run successfully lately," Schmit-Albin said.
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