Ben Nelson: Don’t count on my vote

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) says that Democratic leaders should not count on him to be the 60th vote for passing healthcare reform this year.

Nelson, who has bucked his party more than any Senate Democrat on procedural votes in 2009, is a pivotal figure on healthcare. With 59 Democrats in the upper chamber and centrist Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in negotiations with Democratic leaders, the prospect of compiling 60 votes to overcome procedural obstacles appears within reach.

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But Nelson isn’t promising anything. He told The Hill, “I’m not going to commit anything at this point in time on procedural votes, neither pro nor con, because it will depend on the circumstances. I can’t make those decisions in advance because it depends on what the bill is and what the circumstances are at the time.”

He added, “Otherwise, you’re just giving away your vote no matter what the underlying circumstance is, and I’m just not prepared to do that.”

The 68-year-old lawmaker, who is serving his 2nd term, recently said he favors a triggered public option if the private insurance market does not work. And on Tuesday, he said, “My vote is not on autopilot.”

Nelson has been targeted by some liberal groups that are frustrated with his lack of commitment on a healthcare overhaul. Nelson and these left-wing groups have traded barbs throughout 2009 in the wake of liberal advertisements they have launched against the conservative Democrat.

A 2009 voting record analysis of Democrats conducted by The Hill finds that Nelson breaks with his party the most on procedural motions. After Nelson, Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have cast the conference’s next largest number of votes against procedural motions. The analysis included a total of 91 procedural votes during the 111th Congress, 60 of which had Democratic defections. Nelson had a total of 32 defections.

The six senators could hold the key this fall to successful passage of health reform. If Democratic leaders can hold the conference together on procedural votes, Democrats from states with large Republican bases, such as Nelson, Bayh and Lincoln, could vote against the final bill without endangering its success.

While it remains unclear if Snowe will embrace healthcare reform legislation, Democrats could get to 60 votes without her if Massachusetts changes its law to allow for an appointment to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat.

Even if Democrats employ reconciliation rules — the partisan budget procedure that allows for bills to pass with just 51 votes — they will still need 60 votes to overcome points of order Republicans are crafting in an effort to torpedo healthcare reform.

There are signs that Senate Democratic leaders are leaning on their members to get in line on procedural votes.

“People know that they ultimately will have the last word on the bill, but at least the procedural votes would allow us to go forward, consider amendments and hold out the possibility of passing legislation,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who steered health reform through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this summer, also said Democrats are considering pressing their members to support procedural votes.

“That’s one of the tracks to go down, and obviously that’s a possibility,” Dodd said. “People need to understand there are alternatives, that we’re going to get healthcare done one way or another … It gets you to the point where you can actually vote on the bill. And then you’ve got a nine-vote spread, theoretically, so you’d lose something but probably still be able to hold the bill together, by and large.”

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But Durbin, Dodd and other powerful Senate Democrats have more work to do in convincing a few of their colleagues.

Nelson said, “I’ve always been consistent on this. You have to be careful in voting against procedure when you want to give something an up-or-down vote, but there are extraordinary circumstances under which you might vote against the procedural vote.”

During George W. Bush’s administration, Nelson adhered to this legislative philosophy by usually voting to allow a bill to proceed to a final roll call.

Others said they would probably play ball, but cautioned that much depends on how the bill is funded.

“I’d be surprised if I couldn’t be there on procedural votes,” said McCaskill, whose 21 defections tied her for second place with Bayh. “But if you drill down on my record, many times it’s about the way we spend money. When I have parted ways with the party, they’ve been on issues surrounding spending and deficit control. I’ve said all along that whatever kind of healthcare we have has to be paid for, so I don’t think I’d vote to cut off a filibuster that was objecting to a bill that wasn’t paid for.”

Bayh provided two different answers, first saying he considers procedural votes no different from final votes on legislation and then stating that he would decide his health reform votes on a case-by-case basis.

“The distinction between procedure and substance is many times artificial around here,” he said. “If you agree to a procedure that leads inexorably to a substance with which you disagree, how are you supposed to do that? It puts us in a position of being asked to facilitate an outcome with which we disagree.”

Bayh, who was under serious consideration to be President Barack Obama’s running mate last year, subsequently sought out The Hill to clarify that he would likely support procedural votes at least to get a health reform bill to House-Senate conference talks.

“It’s possible I would support the caucus on some early procedural steps to move the process along, to give it an attempt to improve the product, even if I didn’t agree with what it offered,” he said. “But at the last step in the process, if there’s no further improvement possible, at that point I think procedure and substance are the same.”