Nelson defends Senate health bill, signals strong backing for reform

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who withheld his support for the Senate-passed healthcare reform bill until practically the last minute, strongly hinted that he is prepared to back the final push to finish the job this spring.

"Doing nothing on healthcare reform might seem like a reasonable option to some, but in my opinion it’s not. Our nation’s healthcare crisis will only get worse the longer we delay," Nelson said at a conference hosted by the Federation of American Hospitals.

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Nelson took aim at Republicans who have called for President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level Politics must accept the reality of multiracial America and disavow racial backlash To empower parents, reinvent schools MORE and congressional Democrats to scrap the bills that passed the House and Senate last year and begin anew.

"There are those who’ve said, ‘Well, let’s start all over.’ Well, that’s a very appealing idea but for some, that’s code for doing nothing," Nelson said. "Some in Washington say we should do that, start all over with a clean piece of paper and now write a bipartisan health reform bill. Many who want that never started healthcare reform in the last decade. So saying, ‘Stop and start over again’ just means ‘Stop.' "

Nelson had been a skeptic of the Democratic healthcare reform proposals since the legislative process began a year ago and voted for the Senate bill only after securing new language designed to prevent federal money from paying for abortion services as well as additional funding for his home state's Medicaid program.

But with his vote for the bill on the record, and his name indelibly linked to healthcare reform because of the so-called "Cornhusker kickback" deal for the Medicaid money — which Obama proposed extending to all states — Nelson appears poised to join his fellow Democrats in advancing the legislation via budget reconciliation rules that would allow a House-Senate compromise package to pass the upper chamber on a simple majority vote. Nelson's popularity at home took a hit as a result of his role in the process, something he indirectly acknowledged. "I think the American people are of many different minds about this," Nelson said. "but that doesn’t mean that we have to stop working."

Reiterating previous statements, Nelson defended the use of reconciliation to pass the healthcare bill, citing as precedent his support for reconciliation when it was used to pass President George W. Bush's tax cuts over Democratic objections. "Reconciliation is really about whether a bill deserves and up-or-down vote when one side is obstructing the process," he said.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), speaking at the same event, predicted that the Senate Democratic leadership would easily be able to lock down the 50 votes it needs to pass the reconciliation process (with Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPfizer CEO says vaccine data for those under 5 could be available by end of year Omicron coronavirus variant found in at least 10 states Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles MORE available to cast a tie-breaking vote if needed). "They are surely going to get 50 votes," Bayh said. Observing that it will be more difficult for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to get 216 members of her caucus to vote for healthcare reform, however, Bayh was less optimistic about final passage. "I think it's about 51 percent that something will get passed," he said.