Nelson reflects on Senate career, future plans

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November 6th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Nebraskans will elect a new United States Senator today, as Senator Ben Nelson retires from office after serving for 10 years. KVNO’s Lindsey Peterson sat down with Nelson in the television studios at the University of Nebraska Omaha last week to reflect on his time in office and his future plans.

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Lindsey Peterson, KVNO News: I want to talk about the current climate within Congress. Congress’ approval as you know is fairly low and little substantive legislation has been passed recently. As far as the gridlock, do you think it’s the fault of an unbending ideology or do you see a greater divide within the United States as a whole?

Senator Ben Nelson: I think it’s a combination. First of all, the country is very, very divided. You can see that in the polls at the presidential level in the election. You can see it here in Nebraska, sometimes right down to party line, other times it’s ideology that divides. But it’s very, very divided, we are as a country very divided.

Sen. Ben Nelson is retiring from office this year, after a decade in the U.S. Senate. (Photo courtesy Senate.gov)

It almost makes one wonder what about the concept ‘One nation under God,’ are we now ‘One nation divided’? But the other aspects of it are ideological for sure. There are people that are coming to Congress today who ran on a platform that they would bring the country to its knees to bring it to its senses. They would pledge to have us default on our debt. Their efforts at doing that a year ago actually ended up costing us more money in interest because of their shenanigans. So we’re facing trying to deal with ideology that divides us and then sometimes just straight partisanship is dividing us.

Peterson: Reflecting on your career in the Senate, your vote was important for a few pieces of legislation, just recent pieces of legislation. So look back at some of the largest and most influential votes, the Affordable Healthcare Act and the War in Iraq. Do you have any regrets on those two issues?

Nelson: No, I don’t. I think in connection with the War in Iraq, we were told that there were weapons of mass destruction. And not just simply by the administration through the Department of Defense, but Secretary Colin Powell was also involved in believing that there were weapons of mass destruction. And I felt that if you could convince Colin Powell with the inside information that he had, it was probably not unusual that they could convince a majority in the Senate that there were weapons of mass destruction. Now it turned out that there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, certainly none available that we’ve ever been able to find. And it’s unfortunate that we engaged perhaps on that level.

Sen. Nelson stopped by the University of Nebraska Omaha television studios last week for a sit-down interview reflecting on his career.

On the other hand, we were faced with Iraq but we also had Afghanistan. And Afghanistan was not a war of choice by any means whatsoever following 9/11. But those are difficult decisions that you have to make before you send your young people off to war. Even with an all-volunteer force, young people are being asked to sacrifice for the good of their country. And I think a lot of folks are happy now that we’ve scaled down the war in Afghanistan and we’ve reduced the number of combat troops throughout the region. I think that will be in our best interests overall.

There are other concerns of course about votes that if you had it to do again, would you? And the answer is almost always yes because you can only decide on the basis of information you have at the time. Later information might make you feel a bit differently about it, but you have to make decisions on what you have when you’re making them.

Peterson: As for the Affordable Healthcare Act, I know you were criticized by Republicans for the “Cornhusker Kickback.” Talk a bit about that.

Nelson: Well, there was no Cornhusker Kickback and there was no kickback at all. What happened there is the Affordable Care Act extended Medicaid to a whole new group of people at 2017 with some funding at the federal level, but sticking the state with a pretty hefty bill as well for that extension. And I said it’s folly to think that the states are going to have the money in 2017 when they don’t have it today and we’re continuing to have to bail them out on Medicaid, so let’s not make that mistake.

I got a letter from Gov. Heineman who said Nebraska, he didn’t say the states can’t afford it, he said Nebraska can’t afford it. Well I wasn’t doing something strictly for Nebraska. I agreed that all the states had to be treated fairly as well, but they didn’t have a score or a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office to be able to do it for all states. So they blocked in a number of $100 million…well then it highlighted it was Nebraska, and it looked like to some people, although most everyone else knew that jumped on this, that it wasn’t simply for Nebraska, and it ended up not being simply for Nebraska. In the final version, all the states got treated appropriately and in the same way.
But you know, it had an alliterative effect to it, sound to it, “Cornhusker Kickback.” And it’s unfortunate. People that used that used it for political purposes, for partisan purposes, and to try and kill the bill any way they could. But in time now, people look back and know exactly what happened. And there was no kickback, and it wasn’t about Cornhuskers.

Peterson: So why retire now? When Senators are calling for more bipartisanship? Is it because you’re ready to retire, or were you seeing some trouble going into another election? Why now? People want bipartisanship but then at the same time the Senators are leaving at the same time?

Nelson: Well, they want bipartisanship but very often they send people back to Washington who are pledged against bipartisanship. It’s looked at as heresy; it’s looked at as a traitorous decision to try to join together if you’re a Democrat with a Republican or vice versa with a Republican joining together with a Democrat.

One of the reasons former Sen. Bob Bennett from Utah lost in his primary to a Tea Party candidate was that he had partnered with a Democrat on a healthcare bill. That was cause enough to ‘primary’ him and take him out. So there’s a lot of talk about bipartisanship. We’ll see with this new Congress and what happens in the White House whether there’s a real practice of bipartisanship. The people back home are asking for it, but when folks get back there it’s very difficult to have that kind of partnership.

So as to why I decided not to seek a third term, it’s mainly because when analyzing my bucket list and thinking about the days ahead that I have, look the game clock runs in all of us. And I’m in a position today that I can do the things today physically that I want to do that’s on my bucket list, and I don’t know about seven years from now. I hope so, but it just seemed to me that 20 years in public service was enough sacrifice to ask my family to have. I’ve never considered it a sacrifice myself, but it’s a sacrifice for your family.

Every day that I’ve represented the people of Nebraska as Governor or in the Senate, I’ve enjoyed. Some days I’ve enjoyed a bit more than other days. But it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to be able to do it. But twenty years seemed to be that point in time to move on and do something else while I still can.
Peterson: So are you planning to stay in politics?

Nelson: I imagine I’ll stay active in politics. There’s no question about that. Once it’s in your blood, you’re bound to be involved in it, but very unlikely as a candidate for anything in the future.

Peterson: Well, thank you for joining us.

Nelson: Thank you.

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