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Sen. Bill Nelson: health reform imperative, oil drilling risky, commuter rail transformative

TAMPA — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Monday took the Florida Legislature to task over offshore oil drilling and commuter rail in Tampa, and told Brooksville voters the country must have health care reform.

Health care concerns dominated an event in Brooksville that Nelson had billed as a veterans forum.

"If we don't do something about health care, it's going to run our country into bankruptcy," Nelson told the crowd gathered at City Hall.

Lawrence Adkins, 62, of Brooksville said he worried that the bill could result in cuts to senior health care programs.

"Do you think the senator from the state with such a large number of seniors is going to let that happen?" Nelson said with a smile, prompting chuckles from the audience. "What we're going to do is insist on efficiencies — and I don't mean cuts, I mean efficiencies — so the United States can afford it."

Nelson said he pushed an amendment in the Senate Finance Committee that would allow the government to secure prescription discounts from drug companies for Medicare and Medicaid patients. The measure could save more than $100 billion over 10 years, but got shot down in committee.

Nelson said he would try again when the debate comes before the full Senate.

"I'm going to try to shame them when we get to this issue to the floor," he said.

Earlier in the day, at a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce luncheon, the Democratic senator said he expects the Senate to ultimately will pass a health care bill, but one more moderate than the House bill, which he called "tilted a bit to the left."

He also expressed dismay that some of Florida's legislative leadership is intent on drilling within 3 miles of the state's west coast, thinking it will add billions of dollars to state coffers.

Nelson said it would take 10 years to realize any financial benefit even if drilling produces oil, which he doubts. Past attempts, he said, have been dry holes.

Nelson said he opposes drilling off the Florida coast in part because of its potential negative impact on the state's tourism industry, but also for national security reasons.

"This is the largest testing and training area for the U.S. military in the world," Nelson said of the eastern Gulf of Mexico. He quoted a letter from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who said oil drilling there is incompatible with military activities. A similar letter from Robert Gates, the current defense secretary, is forthcoming, Nelson said.

He's not against all drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. "Just keep it out of the testing area," he said.

Nelson also urged the Florida Legislature to show support for commuter rail in the Miami and Orlando areas during a special session in December.

That will be critical to winning a portion of the $8 billion in stimulus money President Barack Obama has made available for high-speed rail lines throughout the country, he said.

A line connecting Tampa to Orlando is considered a top contender for the money. Much of the right of way for the project already has been acquired, and environmental studies have been completed.

Sen. Bill Nelson: health reform imperative, oil drilling risky, commuter rail transformative 11/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 7:02am]

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