New York Times — By MONICA DAVEY, Published: December 30, 2009
Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, took to the airwaves in his home state on Wednesday, trying to defend his role as the decisive 60th vote in favor of broad health care legislation.
In the days since the vote, Mr. Nelson has faced scathing political cartoons, busy phone lines and criticism of his position, even from some former supporters.
To explain his vote to critics, he appeared in an advertisement scheduled to be broadcast statewide on Wednesday evening during the one occasion when most Nebraskans were certain to be found before a television — the Holiday Bowl, in which the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers faced the Arizona Wildcats.
“With all the distortions about health care reform, I want you to hear directly from me,” Mr. Nelson says in the ad, which shows his face, up close, speaking straight into the camera as music plays. In the 30-second spot, Mr. Nelson goes on to describe the legislation as “a common sense approach” that will lower costs for families and small businesses, protect Medicare, guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions, reduce the deficit and, he adds with emphasis, “It’s not run by the government.”
Mr. Nelson, a former governor and second-term senator who won re-election in 2006 with 64 percent of the vote, has long had a conservative voting record that left many in this conservative state saying they liked their down-to-earth, amiable senator, whatever his party. But with his vote on health care, some critics in Nebraska now said they were painfully aware of something that had been true all along: He is the only Democrat currently holding statewide office in Nebraska.
“Nebraska is in a huge revolt over this,” said Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, whose group has repeatedly endorsed Mr. Nelson for his anti-abortion views. “My personal feeling is that he completely underestimated the level of opposition to the overall bill among Nebraskans, and it just whacked him on the side of the head.”
Among the critics, some, like Ms. Schmit-Albin, say they are dissatisfied with the Senate bill’s provisions related to abortion — an effort to segregate federal dollars from private ones and let states set still tighter restrictions — and feel Mr. Nelson betrayed them on the matter. (This might surprise Senate liberals, many of whom were angry that Mr. Nelson insisted on the abortion rules.)
Other critics say he simply should not have supported the entire insurance overhaul notion, for its high costs and potential damage to those forced to buy insurance.
“That’s not the way we operate,” said Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican who is sometimes suggested as a possible opponent for Mr. Nelson in 2012. Mr. Heineman said that as news of the Medicaid provision spread, people in Nebraska felt embarrassed at the thought that they had been made part of some political deal, even if it was to benefit them.
Any such exemption should affect all states, Mr. Heineman said, not just one. “Our citizens got angry,” he said. “It was an attack on their integrity.”
On Wednesday, Senator Nelson declined a request for an interview through his spokesman. But his office has previously explained the Medicaid provision as one that actually grew out of a concern expressed in a letter weeks ago by Mr. Heineman about how the state would pay for changes brought by the health care proposals.
Jake Thompson, a spokesman for Mr. Nelson, said it had not been the senator’s idea; Mr. Nelson had simply informed Senate leadership about Mr. Heineman’s letter, he said, and the leaders had come up with the solution.
“If the governor asks Senator Nelson to have it removed, he will,” Mr. Thompson said.
Mr. Heineman said his central wish was that Mr. Nelson reconsider his vote in the days ahead as the Senate and House try to merge their versions of the health care overhaul.
Few in Nebraska seemed certain what effect Mr. Nelson’s advertisement — which is expected to broadcast an undetermined number of times after Wednesday night — might have on people here. It was being paid for by the Nebraska Democratic Party, which declined to release the cost of the efforts.
From the New York Times: Kate Zernike contributed reporting.