The Cornhusker Kickback Take 2

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A conservative Democratic senator is a hold out, and possibly deciding vote, on pivotal legislation that tops the President’s agenda. He had a deal that benefits his Midwestern state, but it was taken out and now his attempts to put it back in and the substance of the deal itself is drumming up a bit of controversy. The Cornhusker Kickback, they’re calling it. Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson and health care reform. I’m talking about Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson and financial regulatory reform.

Nelson has been the lone Democrat opposing financial reregulation legislation all week. He’s upset that a carve out that would benefit Warren Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway – which is based in Omaha, was stripped form the derivatives package negotiated by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln. Immediately, the press labeled Nelson’s request a sweetheart deal and noted the senator owns anywhere from $1.5 million to $6 million in Berkshire Hathaway stock. Nelson, of course, was incensed. “Unfortunately, amid discussions on that bill, we’ve seen the usual Washington parlor game of wild speculation, unfounded rumor and uninformed comments by unnamed sources, some directed at me,” Nelson said in a lengthy statement put out yesterday. “Today, Washington is a cesspool of gotcha politics. It’s so out of control you can’t even shake hands in the hallway with a Future Farmer of America without people questioning your motives.”

Nelson went on to explain how his provision is important to not only Berkshire Hathaway but Caterpillar, 3M, ConAgra, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Walt Disney Company (yet, oddly, we didn’t see Florida Bill Nelson blocking the bill on behalf of Walt Disney or Missouri’s Claire McCaskill opposing it for Caterpillar). Nelson noted that the U.S. government shouldn’t be in the business of rewriting existing business contracts and said that all outstanding derivatives – and Berkshire Hathaway has some $63 billion of them – should be grandfathered in and not subject to the new regulations.

Nelson may have a point but, unfortunately for him, his party is still a little burned from the last Cornhusker Kickback during health care reform – a sweetheart deal so universally condemned by Republicans, Democrats – even President Obama – that Nancy Pelosi considered using the Slaughter solution rather than let her members be tainted for having voted for it. In the end it was stripped out by the House reconciliation amendments.

Because of that unpleasantness, Nelson’s requests and amendments are now closely watched – and it doesn’t help when he’s the only high profile Dem holdout on a big vote. He could be asking for money for kittens and puppies and orphans these days and someone will still pounce and call it a Cornhusker Kickback. Those Nebraska puppies – why should they be saved any more than puppies across the country?! But in this case, in addition to Nelson’s personal stock, Berkshire Hathaway has long been Nelson’s largest donor, giving more than $75,000 over the years, as The Post points out today. Nelson makes it hard for leaders to include his provision because the last thing they want is national uproar over Cornhusker Kickback #2. And he should be careful: in an election the most dangerous thing is allowing your opponent to define you first. Nelson’s not up till 2012 but he’s already in trouble in Nebraska polls and the more he’s seen as a greedy grubs, the more trouble he’s going to have at home.