Sept. 19, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Nebraska Is All That Counts for a Party-Bucking Nelson

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Ben Nelson is the first Democratic Senator in decades to oppose his president’s pick for the Supreme Court.

Sen. Ben Nelson is catching a lot of grief from within his party for being the first Democratic Senator in decades to oppose his president’s pick for the Supreme Court. But the Nebraskan is hearing none of it.

“Are they from Nebraska? Then I don’t care,” a defiant Nelson said Tuesday.

Nelson, who for months has broken with his party on a variety of high-profile issues, on Friday became the first Democratic Senator to oppose Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination. Nelson has said Kagan is unfit to serve on the high court, noting her lack of judicial experience and his constituents’ concerns about the installment.

Kagan’s nomination, now being debated on the Senate floor, is all but a sure thing. With the exception of Nelson, every Democrat is expected to vote to confirm her. And GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) have announced their support.

Nelson’s defection casts a shadow on a near-flawless confirmation performance for Kagan: Republicans now can claim that the solicitor general had “bipartisan” opposition.

Nelson seemed unfazed about that possibility on Tuesday, arguing that Kagan hasn’t demonstrated she is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court and taking issue with her position on the Second Amendment.

Nelson, who supported Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation last year, argued that Kagan’s previous comments and political positions simply raise too many unanswered questions for him to support her. There are “enough comments made to raise doubts, [and] I’m not in the position to quell those fears. Including my own,” Nelson said.

Still, Nelson’s opposition has outraged the left flank of his party and kicked off speculation — which he has vehemently denied — that he may bolt the party next year if Republicans make significant gains in the midterm elections. Nelson is up for re-election in 2012.

Several Republicans were quick to point out that Nelson will be the first Democratic Senator to vote against his party’s Supreme Court nominee since 1968 when a bipartisan group of Senators blocked President Lyndon Johnson’s nomination of then-Justice Abe Fortas to become chief justice. Fortas was under an ethical cloud for accepting thousands of dollars from corporations for speaking engagements, and he was ultimately forced to step down from the court.

Publicly, Democrats didn’t want to criticize Nelson for his promise of a “no” vote even though they quickly dismissed his line of reasoning. “I never suggest motives for Senators who can make up their own minds, but I do know we’ve confirmed a lot of people around here who are not nearly as qualified as she is,” Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said.

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