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Profile: Ben Nelson

Ben Nelson was a participant or observer in the following events:

Joe Wilson attempting to shout down President Obama.Joe Wilson attempting to shout down President Obama. [Source: Politics Daily]President Obama gives a speech touting his administration’s health care reform efforts to a joint session of Congress. The speech, at times forceful and other times attempting to reach across party lines for a bipartisan reform effort, is primarly designed to unify Democrats against a near-unified Republican opposition. Obama denounces some of the most egregious misrepresentations about the health care reform effort, including the so-called “death panel” claim (see August 7, 2009, August 15, 2009, and August 23-24, 2009), in which he calls the people who spread the tale “liars.” He warns Republicans that he will brook no more gamesmanship from them in the effort to craft a reform bill. “What we have also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government,” he says. “Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge. And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned. Well, the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed.” Democrats roundly cheer Obama’s words; Republicans generally do not. [Politico, 9/9/2009; Washington Post, 9/9/2009; Salon, 9/9/2009] The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza later notes that the speech is stronger on rhetoric than it is on specifics. [Washington Post, 9/9/2009] Salon’s Joan Walsh, an avowed progressive, calls the speech “great” and writes: “What was most important about Obama’s address was his declaration that he won’t tolerate any more ‘lies’ or ‘bogus claims’ from the GOP. Yes, he used those terms.… My only real criticism is I wish he’d found a way to do this two months ago. Obama has never before been so lucid in explaining why reform is crucial.” [Salon, 9/9/2009]
Health Care an Economic Issue - Obama insists that reforming health care is critical to managing America’s continuing economic crisis, and key to shrinking the huge deficit. He says: “Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close.” However, as Walsh writes: “I was not crazy about his firm promise, ‘I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficit.’ I’m not sure he can keep that promise, for one thing, and it’s not a pledge he makes when asking for more money for Afghanistan, or for the not terribly stimulative tax cut he included in the stimulus bill.” [Salon, 9/9/2009; Salon, 9/9/2009]
No Commitment to the Public Option - While Obama’s rhetoric is at times tough, he does not directly embrace the idea of a “public option,” the proposed government-run, non-profit alternative to private health insurance. Many Democrats, particularly those in the progressive wing of the party, are strongly in favor of such a measure. “It is only one part of my plan,” Obama says of the option. “To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it. The public option is only a means to that end—and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.” [Politico, 9/9/2009; Salon, 9/9/2009] He notes that he has no interest in punishing the health care insurance industry, saying, “I don’t want to put insurance companies out of business, I just want to hold them accountable.” [Salon, 9/9/2009]
Evoking Senator Kennedy - Near the end of the speech, Obama evokes the memory of former Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who died recently of brain cancer. Kennedy characterized health care reform as the centerpiece of his political agenda, and fought for it throughout his lengthy stay in the Senate. Obama reveals that Kennedy sent the White House a letter in his last days (see May 12, 2009), asking Obama and his fellow members of Congress to keep fighting for health care reform for the betterment of all Americans. Referring to Kennedy’s message, Obama closes with the line: “We did not come here to fear the future. We came here to shape it.” [Washington Post, 9/9/2009] Walsh says of the letter, “It let Obama return to his theme that health care in this wealthy nation is a moral issue and a matter of social justice.” [Washington Post, 9/9/2009]
'You Lie!' - During the speech, when Obama says that the health care legislation being crafted by Congressional Democrats does not offer free health care to illegal immigrants, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouts, “You lie!” Many lawmakers gasp at Wilson’s outburst, but Obama merely points an admonishing finger in the direction of the shout and continues his address. (It takes some time to identify Wilson as the shouter, as he quickly sinks back into his seat among his fellow Republican House members.) The Associated Press writes, “The nastiness of August reached from the nation’s town halls” in Wilson’s outburst; Politico’s Glenn Thrush later calls Wilson’s shout “boorish,” and notes that his outburst “enraged audience members on both sides of the aisle.” Wilson’s disruptive behavior is only one of a number of displays of disagreement from Republicans during the address; many spend time during the speech texting on their Blackberries or waving copies of GOP reform proposals. After the speech, Wilson is chastised by, among others, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and he offers an apology to Obama through the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel (see September 9-10, 2009). [Politico, 9/9/2009; Associated Press, 9/9/2009] Cillizza later writes that the image of Republicans shouting at the president or showing their contempt for his message by texting during the speech gives a poor impression of them. “The more Republicans look like they are opposing the Democratic plan for partisan reasons, the more danger they are in politically,” he writes. [Washington Post, 9/9/2009]
Responses - Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), considered a possible opponent to many reform provisions, says he came away from the speech impressed. “I think it was a bit of a game-changer,” he says. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says, “The speech galvanized support along the Democratic Caucus across the political spectrum, from the progressive caucus to the Blue Dogs, and everybody left determined to get something done this year.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has a different response, ignoring the behavior of his own party members to accuse Obama of behaving in an undignified manner. “I was incredibly disappointed in the tone of his speech,” he says. “At times, I found his tone to be overly combative and believe he behaved in a manner beneath the dignity of the office. I fear his speech tonight has made it more difficult—not less—to find common ground. He appeared to be angry at his critics and disappointed the American people were not buying the proposals he has been selling.… If the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats go down this path and push a bill on the American people they do not want, it could be the beginning of the end of the Obama presidency.” Representative Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is running for the Illinois Senate seat once occupied by Obama, says: “He talked at us. He didn’t listen to us.… It was a missed opportunity.” However, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), one of the Obama administration’s most consistent critics, calls the speech “good,” and says: “I’m willing to compromise to get things fixed. But I’m not willing to put the government in charge because we don’t have a good track record.” [Politico, 9/9/2009] Political scientist Morris Fiorina calls Wilson’s outburst “a new low for the contemporary era,” and adds, “Some politicians seem to be adopting radio talk show hosts and cable TV commentators as their role models.” [USA Today, 9/10/2009]
Armed Man Attempted to Get to Capitol before Speech - Shortly before Obama’s speech, Capitol Police arrested a man trying to enter the Capitol grounds with a shotgun and a rifle (see September 9, 2009).

Entity Tags: Glenn Thrush, Tom Coburn, Barack Obama, Chris Van Hollen, Chris Cillizza, Rahm Emanuel, Ben Nelson, Mark Steven Kirk, Joan Walsh, Morris Fiorina, Joe Wilson, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, John McCain, Lindsey Graham

Timeline Tags: US Health Care, Domestic Propaganda

Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, makes several revisions to the “final” draft of the Chairman’s Mark of the America’s Healthy Future Act (AHFA, the name for health care reform legislation—see September 16-17, 2009). The “chairman’s mark” is a recommendation by a committee or subcommittee chair of measures to be considered in a markup, and is usually drafted as a bill. Baucus says in a statement: “The modifications focus largely on making care more affordable for low and middle income Americans by increasing the Health Care Affordability Tax Credit, lowering the penalties for people who fail to meet the individual requirement to have health insurance, and increasing the High Cost Insurance Excise Tax threshold for people whose basic health care is more expensive… and effectively slows the growth of skyrocketing health care costs.… This modification incorporates important ideas from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.” According to Baucus, AHFA as it now stands will make it easier for families and small businesses to buy health care coverage, ensure Americans can choose to keep the health care coverage they have if they like, and slow the growth of health care costs over time. “It will bar insurance companies from discriminating against people based on health status, denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, or imposing annual caps or lifetime limits on coverage.” Baucus continues to assert that AHFA will not add to the federal deficit. Some of the new provisions include:
bullet Lowering the amount that insurance companies can vary premiums based on age, ensuring that these companies cannot charge elderly clients far more than younger ones. The provision was first submitted by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
bullet Providing $5 billion in additional assistance to small businesses attempting to provide coverage for their workers. The provision was first submitted by Senators Kerry and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).
bullet Including more senior citizens in the Medicare Advantage program.
bullet Making prescription drugs more affordable for senior citizens by reducing co-payments. This provision was first submitted by Senators John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Ben Nelson (D-NE).
bullet Improving Medicare beneficiary access to bone density tests, a provision first submitted by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR).
bullet Creation of a three-year Medicare Hospice Concurrent Care (HCC) demonstration program that would provide Medicare patients eligible for hospice care with all other Medicare-covered services during the same period of time. This provision was first submitted by Senator Wyden.
bullet Improving access to Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) for low income individuals in Medicaid who are in need of long-term care, a provision first submitted by Senator Kerry.
bullet Creating nursing home alternatives for patients in need of long-term care, a provision first submitted by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA).
bullet Provide alternatives to nursing home care for disabled individuals on Medicaid, a provision first submitted by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY).
bullet Improving access to mental health care for Medicaid patients, a provision first submitted by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME).
bullet Financial assistance for “high-need” states having difficulty paying for their Medicaid obligations, and use of surplus Medicaid funds to improve the program.
bullet Create an exemption to encourage health care beneficiaries to use generic prescription drugs by waiving co-payments, a provision first submitted by Senator Stabenow.
bullet Remove the mandate that would require states to cover all prescription drugs for Medicaid beneficiaries.
bullet Direct the secretary of health and human services to implement programs to reduce waste in the way drugs are dispensed to seniors in long term care facilities. [Senior Journal, 9/22/2009; New York Times, 9/22/2009; The Capitol (.net), 2011]

Entity Tags: Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Debbie Stabenow, Jeff Bingaman, Charles Schumer, John D. Rockefeller, America’s Healthy Future Act, Maria Cantwell, Max Baucus, Olympia Snowe, Ron Wyden, Senate Finance Committee, John Kerry

Timeline Tags: US Health Care

Senate Democrats are unable to break a filibuster by Senate Republicans that is blocking passage of the DISCLOSE Act.
Act Would Mandate Disclosure of Donors - The DISCLOSE Act—formally the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act—would overturn many elements of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities (see January 21, 2010). If passed, it would have created new campaign finance disclosure requirements and made public the names of “super PAC” contributors (see March 26, 2010). Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and tax-exempt charitable organizations would, under the act, report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) each time they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures. Additionally, all outside groups, including “super PACs,” would have to report the names of donors. Moreover, the legislation would provide for so-called “Stand By Your Ad” requirements mandating that super PACs and other outside campaign groups producing political advertisements disclose the top funders in the ad. The CEO or highest-ranking official of an organization would, under the act, have to appear in the ad and officially “approve” the message. [Open Congress, 6/29/2010; OMB Watch, 7/24/2012]
Unbreakable Filibuster - Even public support from President Obama fails to sway enough Republican senators to vote against the filibuster, as did changes made to the bill by sponsor Charles Schumer (D-NY) designed to assuage some of Republicans’ concerns about the bill. The bill has already passed the House, shepherded through under Democratic leadership against Republican opposition. Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate also, but Senate rules allow the minority to mount filibusters that require 60 votes to overcome, and a number of Republicans would need to break from the Republican pack to vote down the filibuster. Additionally, some conservative senators such as Ben Nelson (D-NE) have not publicly stated their support for the bill. One Republican who had previously indicated she might vote for cloture (against the filibuster), Susan Collins (R-ME), dashed Democrats’ final hopes by saying she would not vote for cloture after all. “The bill would provide a clear and unfair advantage to unions while either shutting other organizations out of the election process or subjecting them to onerous reporting requirements that would not apply to unions,” says Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. “Senator Collins believes that it is ironic that a bill aimed at curtailing special interests in the election process provides so many carve-outs and exemptions that favor some grass-roots organizations over others. This, too, is simply unfair.” Other so-called Republican moderates such as Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) have previously indicated they would not vote for cloture. Ironically, one of the “carve-outs” in the bill Schumer added was on behalf of the far-right National Rifle Association (NRA), an addition that Schumer says was made to placate Republicans. Schumer says that even if the bill does not pass now, attempts to reintroduce it will be made. The DISCLOSE Act “is one of the most important for the future of our democracy, not just for the next six months but for the next six decades,” he says. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says: “I don’t know what the final vote will be tomorrow, but I know that you—if you had a sliver of Republicans that thought special-interest giving and corporate influence in elections was… part of the problem, then this bill would pass. Now we get to see who in the Senate thinks there’s too much corporate influence and too much special-interest money that dominate our elections and who doesn’t. I don’t know how it could be any clearer than that.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) retorts: “The DISCLOSE Act seeks to protect unpopular Democrat politicians by silencing their critics and exempting their campaign supporters from an all-out attack on the First Amendment (see January 21, 2010). In the process, the authors of the bill have decided to trade our constitutional rights away in a backroom deal that makes the Cornhusker Kickback look like a model of legislative transparency.” [Politico, 7/26/2010] The “Cornhusker Kickback” McConnell is referencing is a deal struck in late 2009 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to win Nelson’s support for the Democrats’ health care reform package, in which Nebraska, Nelson’s state, would receive 100 percent government financing for an expansion of Medicare. [Las Vegas Sun, 12/20/2009]

Entity Tags: Harry Reid, Federal Election Commission, Charles Schumer, Ben Nelson, Barack Obama, US Supreme Court, US Senate, Susan Collins, Scott Brown, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Olympia Snowe, Mitch McConnell, National Rifle Association, Robert Gibbs, Kevin Kelley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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