Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Interpreting the Benator

Greg Sargent and David Kurtz are upset, again, with Ben Nelson today because of Nelson's comments at a Town Hall in Nebraska.

Let's see what Nelson said and how we should interpret it. First, on supermajorities:
Nelson said health care legislation should be bipartisan and supported by at least 65 senators because it would have more credibility with the American people...Nelson said Democrats have a responsibility to seek Republican support and the GOP has a responsibility to “look favorably on something and not just be against everything.''
And from a second cited article:

Nelson appeared to settle on 65 Senate votes as a figure that would provide him a comfort level in terms of establishing a level of bipartisan support for a bill.

"I think anything less than that would challenge its legitimacy," he said.

Notice what he says, and what he doesn't say. He doesn't say that he'll only vote for something that can get 65 votes. He's certainly saying that's his preference, but that's hardly remarkable. What he's doing, I think, is setting himself apart from both Democrats and Republicans; he's performing a classic run-against-Washington home style. He's leaving himself open to voting against a bill (by claiming that Democrats didn't sufficiently seek GOP support) or in favor of a bill (by claiming that Republicans were just against everything). I think the key excerpt, from the Journal Star story, is:
"My vote is not on autopilot for anybody," he said to a round of applause.
He's not saying he'll vote one way or another. What's he doing? In the run-up to a vote that's going to make some constituents unhappy whatever he does, he's just tending to his reputation in the state. He's making a classic Fenno-style promise -- not a promise on substance (which would leave lots of constituents unhappy), but a promise on style. He's promising to be independent, and he'll later defend his vote (whatever it is) as an independent vote, not a party-line (or party-defecting) vote.

Now, what he says about reconciliation is different. The World-Herald has Nelson explicitly saying he'll vote against a reconciliation bill.

But that too is unremarkable, because the Democrats would only use reconciliation if Ben Nelson isn't going to vote for a free-standing bill (or at least cloture on a free-standing bill). No one thinks that there's a (just) 50 vote majority for health care that includes Ben Nelson.

So I really don't see much going on here. Sargent says that he's annoyed because "Nelson has presented himself as a passive observer of the process, rather than an active member who’s declarations and actions influence what happens." But that's not quite what he's doing; he's setting up a contrast between what Those Idiots in Washington are doing (partisan bickering) and what Ben Nelson is doing (independent thinking). That's what lots of Members of Congress do at home (or in Washington for consumption back home), and it really doesn't harm anyone.

Bash Nelson all you want if he announces against cloture; even more so, bash him if the specific amendments he wants don't make any sense (which I think was the case with the stimulus bill, for example). But nothing is going to stop a lot of politicians from talking about how independent they are, even if it annoys the pundits.

Well, especially if it annoys the pundits. That works, too.

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