Ben Nelson Threatens to Blow Up Health Reform

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I know a lot of the readers of this blog think that Barack Obama could cause any bill to pass the Senate that he wants if only he were sufficiently spiney, and that any effort to point out the existence of objective impediments to passing legislation is just “shilling” for the White House, but it’s still the case that objective impediments exist. To pass a bill through a non-reconciliation process, you not only need the support of guys like Max Baucus and Kent Conrad, you also need the support of even-less-progressive Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln. And then there’s Ben Nelson, the most conservative Democrat of all:

“I see two endings,” Nelson said when asked by the paper what’s next for reform. “One is we find areas we can agree upon and we begin to do things incrementally, taking more of an insurance approach, not a government approach. Or it implodes.”

The context leaves no doubt that by “government approach” he means the public option, and this statement would seem to be pretty definitive. How can Nelson support the public plan if it will destroy reform?

As Greg Sargent notes later in that item, it’s extremely annoying to see Nelson’s use of the passive voice here to avoid responsibility. What Nelson is saying is that he, personally, will cause health reform to implode unless reform is incremental and lacks a public option. But instead of fessing up, he’s using a lot of weasel words. Maybe you can get a public option put in place via reconciliation, in which case you don’t need Nelson, but absent reconciliation you do need Nelson and he’s intransigent.

Now of course Nelson represents Nebraska which is a pretty conservative state. It’s worth noting, however, that it’s pretty hard to think of pieces of major beneficial legislation becoming law in the United States purely out of people behaving in a craven and self-interested manner. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, secured the support of Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma, not exactly the most black-friendly state in the Union. But Monroney seems to have been a man of conscience and thus he “voted for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964. He also refused to sign the ‘Southern Manifesto,’ a call by a group of Southern senators in 1956 urging resistance to school desegregation.” These were real acts of political courage. Oklahoma was once upon a time a safe Democratic state, but it went for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 and Nixon in 1960. The state elected its first Republican governor in 1962, and he was re-elected in 1966. And Monroney’s political courage met with exactly the fate that cowardly politicians fear—he got beaten in 1968. But he still did the right thing.