Tie-Breaking Senators Nelson and Lieberman: Heroes or Villains?

The conservative Democrats pushed health care reform to the right before lending it their decisive support

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The Senate's 1 a.m. vote, which showed that Democrats may have finally secured the votes to pass health care reform, turned on the votes of two men: Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman. Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, and Lieberman, a conservative Democrat-turned-Independent from Connecticut, long opposed the bill. To appease them, Democrats drove the legislation to the right over the last few weeks. Now that Nelson and Lieberman have come around, health care watchers are divided. Are the two Senators heroes for finally joining with Democratic leadership to pass historic legislation? Or are they villains who abused their position to exert undue influence on the legislative process?

  • The 'Grifter Politicians' New York Daily News's Mike Lupica is disgusted. "Grifter politicians Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman do number on health care reform bill," he headlines his story. "You could call people like this the brand new Washington generation of the boys of Tammany Hall, except that in another New York, Tammany Hall was actually known for providing services, starting with jobs. [...] Something else separates Tammany Hall from the current U.S. Senate. In old New York, they did their skimming out in the open and never tried to pretend they were doing something noble."
  • An 'Achievable' Compromise The Washington Post's Ezra Klein isn't sweating it. "A smart observer told me that the bill would come down to whether Ben Nelson, in his heart of hearts, wanted to vote for it or wanted to use his demands to kill it. It looks like he wanted to vote for it. Nelson's compromises were achievable. Abortion language stronger than what the legislation had but considerably weaker than what [House Democrat and pro-life advocate] Bart Stupak preferred. An extra year of federal funding for the Medicaid expansion, which is probably a good thing one way or the other."
  • Nelson's Bribe Won't Last Senate-watchers of all ideological stripes are furious with Nelson, whose vote was won in part with a $100 million provision specific to Nelson's home state of Nebraska, dubbed the "Cornhusker Kickback." Matthew Yglesias blasts it as "totally politically unsustainable," writing, "The actual amount of money involved in this is small, but the policy justification is impossible to find." He shrugs, "The extra federal bucks for Nebraska aren't scheduled to arrive until 2016. That gives congress tons of time to repeal Nebraska's special treatment. Given Nelson's pivotal role in the great health care debate of 2009-2010 he was in a position to demand whatever he wanted. But he can't stay in that position consistently for the next seven years."
  • 'Shows Our Broken Senate' Gawker's Alex Pareene shakes his head. "We learned, again, forever, that the Senate is broken. There are 60 votes to pass the bill but no chance of that happening before Christmas. They had to meet at 1 a.m. in a blizzard to pass a procedural motion. Do you think a climate bill is happening? Hah. Sure. Whatever. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins got everything they asked for and they voted against it. Lieberman and Nelson promise to attempt to kill it again if it ends up looking too generous," he writes, "But christ, the country is pretty broken, right? 2010 is going to be fun! There will be like three more of these year-long soul-destroying battles over every little thing!"
  • Disproportionate Influence Twitter user Pourmecoffee notes, "Joe Lieberman was more powerful and relevant to health care legislation than the entire US House of Representatives."
  • They Could Still Defect Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler reports that the two Senators "reminded reporters that they'd oppose the bill that emerges from negotiations with the House if the language changes dramatically, entrenching the conventional wisdom that the House will have to accept a final bill that's significantly less progressive than the bill they passed this fall." Lieberman called the 60 "yes" votes, which will need to hang together until at least Christmas for the Senate to pass the bill, "delicately balanced."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.