'You Have to Play It:' In Which Sen. Ben Nelson Overplays His Hand

Wonk Room points us to a revealing interview that Sen. Ben Nelson gave to Life Site News, a high-profile news source among opponents of abortion. Remember that abortion compromise he and Senator Reid worked out? Turns out it was a bit of a sham: Nelson did not support it and planned to filibuster his own language. Here's the key part, where the interviewer is pressing Nelson on why he thought the Stupak amendment would see the light of day after conference:

LSN: What made you think that it had a shot, after conference?
NELSON: Because they needed 60 votes again.
LSN: Right, but before, you voted for it even without it—
NELSON: To get it there . . . But, once it went to conference, as part of the conference, there was still another 60-vote threshold, and that is when I would have insisted . . . how we would approach this in conference to say, for my last 60th vote, it has to have Nelson/Hatch/Casey.
LSN: Why didn't you stop it right then and there and say, "No Nelson/Hatch—nothing."
NELSON: Because, at that point and time, the leverage wasn't as strong—you have to play it [. . . ]
LSN: So, if we got to conference and it was just the Nelson, not the Nelson/Hatch/Casey—you would say yes because you think it was good enough.
NELSON: I could have but I was going to say—and this was all the plan—that I would insist that it be Nelson/Hatch/Casey.

This interview is telling in a number of ways. First, it says a lot about Nelson's views on health-care reform as a means of bartering. The line that sticks out to me is this take on legislating: "You have to play it." From the abortion language to the Cornhusker Kickback, Nelson has reached Lieberman-like levels of posturing himself as the crucial 60th vote and has done so in pretty unflattering ways.

What baffles me is why he continues to do so. He has gotten hounded by groups on both sides of the abortion issue who didn't like his compromise and engendered threats of lawsuits. I could understand facing such blowback for an electoral gain, but Nelson's approval ratings back in Nebraska have plummeted, dropping below 50 percent in mid-January. If you're going to get flak for standing up against abortion, go the Bart Stupak route and embrace it. But this flip-flop approach does not seem to add up to much in the way of gains.

Moreover, after all the posturing as the 60th vote, the distinction may soon become meaningless. Right now, the most promising option in passing health-care reform looks to be the House's passing the Senate bill alongside a reconciliation package. The reconciliation bill would need only 51 votes to pass, so anyone who has taken up the "crucial 60th vote" mantle (cough, Nelson and Lieberman) loses a whole lot of their clout. Nelson's "filibuster in conference" may have seemed like a sound strategy at the time; take away the conference part, and there's not a whole lot left to it.