Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson may well be the last man standing against Senate passage of the Obama healthcare plan.
Now that Sen. Joe Lieberman's qualms apparently have been resolved, Nelson, a moderate pro-life Democrat from a conservative state, appears to be the only formidable obstacle to getting a bill through the Senate.
Several liberal senators, including Sen. Roland Burris of Chicago, have said they won't vote for a bill that lacks a public option. But those senators would come under tremendous pressure if they tried to stonewall their caucus. Several senators can be expected to vote for cloture to stop debate, and then vote against the actual bill for political reasons once it is clear the votes needed for passage are there.
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The lone exception: Nelson.
"That kind of leaves Mr. Nelson, Senator Nelson, as the last man standing here," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on Thursday afternoon according to The Associated Press. "We're all working with Ben to try to get him to be our 60th vote."
Harkin isn't the only one "working with Ben." Advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle are urging their members to contact Nelson's office. Senatorial phone lines in Washington have been jammed.
On Thursday afternoon, a call to Nelson's Washington office brought a recorded message stating the system had no room for more messages. Three of Nelson's district offices in Nebraska offered only busy signals, and a fourth went to voice mail.
Suddenly Nelson finds himself the man of the hour in the decades-long Democratic quest for healthcare reform.
That Nelson finds himself in the eye of the storm is ironic, because throughout his Senate career – he was elected in 2000 to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of former Sen. Bob Kerrey – Nelson has positioned himself as a bipartisan centrist willing to work with both sides of the aisle.
Nelson grew up in the tiny southwest Nebraska town of McCook, population 8,000. Common sense, rural values were in the warp and woof of his upbringing, and he served as a lay minister while attending the University of Nebraska.
Nelson considered going into ministry work full-time, but opted for law school instead. He graduated from the University of Nebraska law school in 1970.
To say he has more than a passable understanding of the ins and outs of healthcare reform would be an understatement. Nelson specialized in insurance law for nearly two decades, serving as CEO of the Central National Insurance Group as well as director of the state's Department of Insurance.
In 1990, Nelson tossed his fedora into the ring for the governorship of Nebraska. A political tyro, he eked out a 42-vote victory in the Democratic primary. He then won the general election in another squeaker, by just 4,000 votes. Yet in 1994, when he ran for re-election, he won by a true landslide -- 74 percent of the vote.
Nelson bills himself as "a conservative Democrat." As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has staunchly defended the interests of the strategic Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue.
A dubious report circulated earlier this week that the administration had threatened to close the Offutt base if he didn't play ball on healthcare reform. Nelson's pointed denial illuminated his doughty personality.
"My vote cannot be bought and I cannot be threatened," Nelson told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "If I had been threatened, I would have gone public with it. My vote is not for sale. Period."
That same flintiness may prove a problem for Democrats who want to preserve pro-abortion language in the reform bill that Nelson currently opposes. Considered staunchly pro life, he's so popular in his home state that he doesn't have to kowtow to anybody. His approval rating usually hovers around the 70 percent mark.
That Nelson's vote isn't solidly in the Democrats' column should surprise no one. After all, he's teamed up with Republicans before on other occasions, the most notable being his participation in the "Gang of 14" that broke (somewhat) the logjam on judicial appointments during the Bush administration.
Nelson's Web site boasts he "has carved for himself a bipartisan role in an often overly partisan Washington environment."
In November, when he cast a key vote to allow debate on the reform bill to proceed, he made clear his lack of enthusiasm for it: "I support parts of the bill and oppose others I will work to fix," he said. "If that's not possible, I will oppose the second cloture motion -- needing 60 votes -- to end debate, and oppose the final bill."
Democrats have been working hard this week to woo Nelson by trying to modify the language in the current proposal that leaves open the possibility that public dollars would flow, at least indirectly, to help underwrite abortions.
Nelson said Thursday the new language was an improvement in the areas of teen pregnancy and adoption, but still is not good enough.
"As it is, without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient," he said in a statement.
During an interview with Lincoln's KLIN radio, Nelson said he cannot and does not support the bill as it is currently written. He added that even if the abortion terminology could be resolved, there are other problems with the bill that could keep him from endorsing it.
"I think the Stupak language which was adopted in the House version is the right language," he said. "I know others are trying to work on it and improve it, but I don't know if they will be successful."
To most Nebraskans, the sincerity of Nelson's stalwart support for the right to life is beyond question. They point to the fact that Nelson has adopted two children. And while he voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he also voted to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, says her organization enjoys a "good rapport" with the senator.
"All I can tell you is we've had a long working relationship with Sen. Nelson from the time he was governor to his current tenure as a U.S. senator," she tells Newsmax. "Our PAC gave him a sole endorsement in 2006, when he was challenged by a Republican pro-life candidate. There's a history there and we appreciate throughout his political career, he's held to his pro-life convictions."
She adds: "We appreciate what he's done and what he is doing. I wouldn't speculate beyond that. He's under enormous pressure and I think he's holding up pretty well."
The lobbying of Nelson is approaching herculean dimensions. Even Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, weighed in recently, shooting off a letter urging Nelson to vote against the plan.
Nelson's somewhat cryptic response: "In your letter you note that the current Senate bill is not in Nebraska's best interest. I agree. That is why I continue to work to change it."
One of the more colorful tidbits on Nelson's biography: he's an avid hunter who went on an African safari. These days, Nelson finds that he's the hunted, not the hunter, ardently tracked by fellow Democrats who believe he represents the 60th vote they need to pass healthcare reform.
And when the hunter becomes the hunted, the outcome is anybody's guess.
"I voted for cloture on the motion to begin debate," he told KLIN. "And I said at the time, and I'm following through on that, if it is not at the point where … I think it needs to be with the improvements that I'm pushing, and they've made a lot of them, then I will not vote for cloture on the motion to end debate."
Schmit-Albin says she's often heard Nelson remark that he was pro-life before he took public office, and he'll be pro-life after he leaves.
"That's playing out now on the national stage, I think, because that's how he's always been," she says.
She adds: "It's gotta be driving his party nuts, is all I've got to say."
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