Nearly eight years ago, Ben Nelson cast a U.S. Senate vote in favor of a version of the Affordable Care Act, and he’s still catching heat.
The latest critic: President Donald Trump, who said this week that Democrats “ended up giving away the state of Nebraska” to win passage of the law in 2010.
In an interview with The World-Herald on Thursday, Nelson said Trump and other critics misunderstand what actually happened, but he agreed with the president’s broader point: Passing a health care law was difficult for him and his fellow Democrats and is politically challenging for today’s Republicans.
“They made promises for seven years, and there is that day of reckoning,” Nelson said in his first discussion of political issues since he left public office in 2013. “People have been expecting it for seven years, and now you come along and say, ‘We can’t do it. We won’t do it’?
“I believe that you have to be very cautious on promises, and very consistent on keeping your promises when you make them.”
Nelson said the odds are against Republicans as they continue their own bruising battle over replacing or just repealing the Affordable Care Act. With the nation and Congress increasingly polarized, it’s harder to bring the two sides together to pass workable legislation, he said.
“Unless something major happens and there’s some change in position, I don’t see that they come up with something,” he said. “They just can’t quite pull it together.”
Republicans can’t agree how to repeal or replace the law known as Obamacare, and Democrats don’t want to reopen the law for fear that it would be gutted.
In discussing that impasse with the New York Times, Trump said Nelson’s vote in 2009 shows that health care was a tough issue for Democrats, too, even though they had a 60-vote majority in the Senate.
“They owned the state of Nebraska,” Trump said. “Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics. What happened to him?”
Nelson responded Thursday: “Maybe I will write him and let him know where I am.”
A popular governor who was twice elected to the U.S. Senate from a mostly-Republican state, Nelson didn’t run for office again after casting that ACA vote.
He defended his votes on the ACA, maintaining — as he did at the time — that the amendment that came to be known as the “Cornhusker Kickback” was a legislative maneuver aimed at giving all states the choice of expanding Medicaid or not.
“Everybody has it wrong,” he said.
If Congress does pass a new law, he said, he doesn’t know whether it will restore order to the individual health insurance business. Nelson said people and legislators should remember that you can’t force companies to sell unprofitable insurance.
“I think everybody’s about ready to throw their hands up in the air,” Nelson said, but the nation and the government should be united on health care.
“Everybody has a stake in this,” he said. “We’re all taxpayers. We’re all Americans. We all have an interest in making sure that the country works for everybody. If it doesn’t work for everybody, it doesn’t work well for anybody, ultimately.”
Nelson said the lack of cooperation by the two parties began destroying the moderate political center in Congress in 2009. It was a legislative role he and a few other senators filled during his 12 years in the Senate, aiming to foster compromise and, he said, “to get things done.”
He said the prospect of being nearly alone in the center of two warring parties was the major reason he decided against running for re-election in 2012. His said his family members also asked to spend more time with him, noting that he had been in public office for 20 years.
The reaction to his vote on the Affordable Care Act was not a reason he decided not to run, he said.
Almost overnight, the controversial vote knocked his Nebraska voter approval rating from 78 percent, the highest in the Senate, to 42 percent, according to one poll, and prompted relentless criticism, with many observers saying his political career was over.
But Nelson says now that, according to private polls he saw in 2011, he would have won a third term by a comfortable margin.
“I know that rankles people who thought I was dead in the water, but that wasn’t the case,” he said.
Mark Fahleson, Nebraska Republican chairman at the time, doesn’t buy it. He said in a recent interview that Nelson’s vote meant he wouldn’t win re-election. At the time, Fahleson headed a campaign called “Give Ben the Boot” with the “kickback” as a centerpiece, financed by contributions from around the country prompted by the amendment.
“The level of angst and anger among Nebraskans at that time, I’ve never seen it that high in my three decades in politics,” Fahleson said. The pollsters he talked to predicted that Nelson would lose.
In 2013 Nelson left Congress for a full-time job, with long weekends in Omaha, as CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a 600-employee association based in Kansas City, Missouri. The group serves officials from the 50 state government agencies that regulate insurance companies.
In January he completed four years on that job, as promised, and now works “of counsel” with Lamson, Dugan & Murray in Omaha, mostly on insurance matters.
He didn’t talk politics publicly while at the association because it is nonpartisan and has members from both political parties, many with strong views about the federal health insurance law.
Nelson said the country was starting to divide in 2009, triggered by federal actions such as the banking and auto industry bailouts and the economic stimulus package. He recalled raucous, anti-ACA Republican town hall meetings during the August 2009 recess that abruptly ended bipartisan work on health care.
The federal actions “divided the country and created the atmosphere that groups like the Tea Party used,” he said. “That wedge has just continued to be hammered in. It’s like you’re trying to split a tree and you put the wedge in like this, and maybe then you get a bigger wedge. They’ve got this huge wedge today splitting the country.”
The centrist role he cherished is gone from the Senate, he said, with the elections of highly partisan senators and departures of fellow moderates such as Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe and the late Arlen Specter.
Does he regret not running again?
“Every now and then I’m wistful about it, but most of the time I would say, maybe I’ve avoided an ulcer, you know?” he said. “Not everybody comes up to me says, ‘I sure wish you were there,’ but a lot do, because they recognize the center and the need for the center.”
As a moderate during the 2009-2010 ACA debate, Nelson was a central figure, often spending as much as an hour in Capitol hallways explaining to reporters in detail why he wanted certain things in or out of the legislation.
Today’s senators from Nebraska have avoided publicly discussing the legislation’s specifics.
“I knew that I’d be frustrated sitting in the middle,” Nelson said. “I like to get things done, so getting elected was a means to getting things done. When I couldn’t see that much could be done (in 2011), it struck me that maybe now was the time for me to go on and do something else that was, in my mind, productive.”
Today, he said, it seems neither party will give an inch on the issues.
“If it’s all or nothing, you know, you usually end up with nothing,” Nelson said. “It’s a terrible way to legislate. You don’t get the best ideas, you don’t get a compromise, you don’t find solutions to problems.”
World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.
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