Dems Say Sen. Ben Nelson’s Deal Was Setback For Health Care

February 1, 2010 6:58 am

Democrats are privately admitting the deal they made with Sen. Ben Nelson on Medicaid funding for Nebraska was a major factor in souring the America people on the health care reform bill.

Senate leadership inked a deal in December to win over Nelson (D-NE), allowing him to insert pro-life language in the measure and to secure federal funding for the cost of any Medicaid expansion in what has now been dubbed the “Cornhusker kickback.”

It’s been the target of lawsuits and scorn from both the right and the left, and leaders in both chambers believe it ultimately will be stripped from the final measure, whenever one surfaces.

Instead of considering more dealmaking to get a final health care bill passed, Democratic sources privately acknowledge that Nelson’s compromise did more harm than good. Several sources said it tops a list of problems that have hurt the health care process.Republicans assigned snarky names to the dealmaking (first blasting Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) for the “Louisiana Purchase”), and the name calling is catching on.

Tennessee legislators introduced a new bill that redefines bribery as including legislative dealmaking, and dubbed it the “Ben Nelson Act to Ensure Political Integrity,” CBS reported last week.

Nelson is suffering in the polls, and has faced pressure from both sides that prompted him to buy campaign advertising two years before he’s even up for reelection explaining his health care vote last month.

Omaha drivers are greeted with a digital billboard targeting Nelson for the deal, so familiar to the state they don’t even use last names.

It reads: “Harry – Thanks for the bribe. Ben”

The sign is located at 72nd and Pacific and was purchased by Americans for Prosperity, a source at the billboard company which owns the space, Waitt Outdoor, told TPMDC. It has been up for about two weeks, but officials declined to reveal how much it cost.

Nelson was even heckled at a local pizza parlor, Politico reported.

Rep. Joe Sestak, attempting to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, said he hears more about the Nebraska deal’s “political calculation” on the campaign trail. Sestak (D-PA) said he views the Massachusetts election as a repudiation of that dealmaking.

“What Massachusetts saw was Ben Nelson’s hand in the cookie jar,” he told TPMDC in an interview.

Democrats were surprised to see the process get so much attention, but realize now that such deals are a bad idea.

A House leadership aide told TPMDC there is “no doubt” the final bill will get rid of the Nelson deal, affirming what members have been saying for several weeks.

Nelson has said he thinks all states should be able to score the same deal.

Highlighting the sensitivity of the issue, several Democrats declined to even speak privately about the deal or how leadership was able to win Nelson’s support.

For his part, Nelson last week called on Republicans to return to the negotiating table so Democrats would not use budget reconciliation.

His office has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

Late Update: Rep. Chris Van Hollen recently admitted to the Washington Post that the Nelson deal caused the Senate measure to be “branded in a way that understandably makes it unacceptable in its current form to many voters, especially independents.”

Later Update: It turns out that the Democratic National Committee paid for the television ad Nelson ran during the Cornhusker game in December, spending nearly $460,000 AmericaBlog first reported.

DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan admitted the party spent the funds to help Nelson, and said they may keep doing so.

He said in a statement:

We, the Democratic Party, were defending a Democratic senator from attacks from the health insurance industry and other special interests for his support of reform. Senator Nelson is not the first Democrat we have defended from these attacks and he will not be the last. We’ve spent money directly in support of House Democrats who have supported reform in the form of TV and radio ads and we’ve also worked with state parties to defend Democrats like Senators Nelson, Lincoln and Dorgan who have stood up to the insurance industry in support of reform.

Additional reporting by Rachel Slajda.

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