Nelson: Playing Spoiler or Clincher?

Posted November 12, 2009 at 10:33am

When the House inserted anti-abortion language into its health care bill, the immediate question was whether the Senate would follow suit. The spotlight quickly shifted to Sen. Ben Nelson, the centrist Nebraska Democrat, who could be key in determining what will be in and out of any health care package.

Nelson, who has one of the strongest anti-abortion records in the Senate among Democrats, says he wants abortion language similar to what was approved in the House health care bill. That provision would bar any subsidized insurance plan from covering elective abortions.

Since he was first elected to the Senate in 2000, Nelson has been a swing vote in his caucus, willing to side with Republicans on matters such as tax cuts and banning some late-term abortions. In the health care debate, Nelson could end up being a spoiler or the clincher as the Democratic leadership searches for the 60 votes necessary to make any progress on the bill.

The Nebraska lawmaker has not committed to voting to allow debate to begin on the health care measure, saying he wants to see the final text of the bill before moving ahead.

In addition to his concerns about abortion, Nelson has voiced objections to a public insurance option that would compete with private plans. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unveiled a proposal that would let states opt out, Nelson has said he would prefer a plan in which states could opt in to any public option. He also wants a mechanism that would trigger a public option if it were needed.

Nelson, a former state insurance director, is also wary of proposals to revoke antitrust exemptions for insurance companies, saying that could hurt small insurance businesses’ ability to collect risk data.

Reid clearly wants to know where Nelson stands on health care. The Nebraskan said he has had several private conversations with the Majority Leader about the issue in recent weeks.

During the 69-year-old Nelson’s political career, he won office as a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state by tacking to the middle. When he served as Nebraska’s governor from 1990 to 1998, he cut taxes and built more prisons.

After being elected to the Senate, he backed a number of President George W. Bush’s initiatives, but he has declined overtures by Republicans to switch parties — instead seeking to shape some Democratic initiatives more to his liking. Earlier this year he worked with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to craft a less costly economic stimulus plan that was narrowly approved by the Senate.