Ben Nelson Is Lobbied By Someone Who Has Been There

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If the changes in the health care bill are indeed enough to bring Joe Lieberman aboard, it looks as though we are back to the point where all eyes are on Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson as potentially the 60th vote to bring the bill over the finish line in the Senate. As you might imagine, Nelson is getting pressure from all sides. One of those calls, I have learned, came from someone who has the unique perspective of having been in this spot himself. And it perhaps adds a little perspective to the messy moment we are at in health care reform.

The call came from Bob Kerrey, now the president of the New School in New York City, but like Nelson, a native Nebraskan and former Governor of that state. Indeed, Nelson was elected to the Senate to fill the seat that Kerrey vacated with his retirement in 2000.

Back in 1993, Kerrey was the final vote that Bill Clinton needed to pass his economic plan. The relationship between the two still carried the strain of their campaign against each other in the Democratic primary the year before. In one of the oddest moments of the cliffhanger in 1993, Kerrey simply went missing. He strolled out of the Senate Chamber to go see a movie. (Trivia buffs will know that it was “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” the Tina Turner biopic that was playing at nearby Union Station.)

In his conversation with Nelson, Kerrey recalled what finally won his vote. It was an appeal from then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who assured Kerrey that he would never regret it. Kerrey told Nelson he hasn’t, and that he feels the same is true now for the man who took his place in the Senate. (It’s worth noting here that health care had been a major issue of Kerrey’s own campaign for President.)

In an e-mail to me this morning, Kerrey confirmed the conversation with Nelson, but added: “I also told him I’d support him no matter what he decides to do.”

The 1993 drama is instructive of why things look so chaotic and uncertain for health care reform. Indeed, what we’ve seen so far is tame by comparison:

Here’s how the former President recalled it in his memoir:

… the outcome was still in doubt, because Bob Kerrey remained uncommitted. On Friday, he met with me for ninety minutes, then, about an hour and a half before the vote, he spoke on the Senate floor, saying directly to me, “I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down your presidency.” While he wold vote yes, he said I would have to do more to control entitlement spending. i agreed to work with him on this.

But George Stephanopoulos has a saltier version in his book:

The morning, the president called him from the Oval. I didn’t hear what Kerrey said, and I didn’t need to. Clinton’s increasingly heated responses told the whole story:
“If you want to bring this presidency down, then go ahead!…
“Maybe I ought to just pick it up and go back to Little Rock…
“My presidency’s going to go down…
“[Expletive deleted to keep Swampland PG-rated] you!
“Fine. OK! If that’s what you want, you go do it.”

Stephanopoulos also puts a different spin on that Senate floor speech:

Kerrey went to the floor and delivered a broadside against Clinton, calling him “green and inexperienced,” and followed up with a few self-righteous shots about how “my heart aches with the conclusion that I will vote yes for a bill which challenges Americans too little.”

Will there be a moment like that for Obama? Perhaps. But if there is, will we have to wait for the books to come out to hear about it?