WASHINGTON — Bill Nelson was against raising the debt ceiling before he was for it. And he was for it before he was against it.
Now, the senior senator from Florida is set to vote for his Democratic Party's plan to raise the federally allowed borrowing limit yet again.
Over the past decade, Nelson has voted 10 times on debt-ceiling resolutions, zigzagging as much as Congress itself, often depending on who's in the White House and what's to blame for the rising debt.
"I think the president was right in saying both political parties bear responsibility for running up the federal debt," Nelson said.
On six occasions — three times under President George W. Bush and three times during Obama's term — Nelson voted to raise the debt ceiling. On four occasions — all under Bush — Nelson voted against raising it as a protest against the Republican president's tax cuts and bank bailout, which Nelson opposed in 2008.
This time, Nelson's vote has particular weight. He faces re-election in a political season when Obama's public support is waning. Nelson's poll numbers suggest his re-election is far from a sure bet.
Nelson's previous nay votes have a political dynamic as well. They're a clear indication that protesting policy by voting "no" on the debt ceiling isn't a conservative creation of the tea party. After all, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted against it in 2006.
Today, Reid and Obama are the biggest supporters of boosting the debt limit. Many of the Republicans who voted in lockstep to raise the debt under Bush are now resisting. And Nelson has voted against raising the debt ceiling more than some of his Republican colleagues.
Late Thursday, Nelson offered a plan on the Senate floor calling for $4 trillion in long-term spending cuts. Since the plan was released late, it had not been fully examined by lawmakers.
From 2002 to 2007, Nelson voted to raise the debt ceiling just twice: as part of 2002 and 2007 packages to lift the economy. His "no" votes came in response to requests by the president to increase the debt ceiling to pay for tax cuts, which "he thought favored the wealthy," Nelson's office said.
But in 2010, Nelson had to reverse his previous opposition to increasing the debt ceiling due to tax cuts. Nelson joined moderate Senate Democrats and passed a debt ceiling increase that also included the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts he had opposed in the past.
Nelson struck a different tone in 2006, when he sounded much like the Republicans who currently oppose raising the debt ceiling without any accompanying spending cuts:
"Raising the debt ceiling allows Washington to continue to spend without cutting costs. Instead of forcing Washington to adopt a pay-as-you-go budget, this proposal encourages government to spend now without even a plan to pay for it later," he said in 2006. "If we raise the debt ceiling, the nation will just go deeper in debt. Washington will never get out of the hole if it doesn't stop digging."
It's not too different from the current stance of Florida's other senator, Marco Rubio. He's a co-sponsor, along with 30 other Republican senators, of legislation that would ensure Social Security benefits, active-duty military pay and publicly held debt get paid before anything else if the United States defaults. Rubio intends to vote against the Reid plan.
Unlike previous debt-ceiling votes, the politics of tea party-backed conservatives such as Rubio have made it far more difficult for House Speaker John Boehner to marshal the votes for raising the ceiling once again.
If Congress can't raise the debt limit by its Aug. 2 deadline, the government will be unable to fully cover its financial obligations. That would not only lead to the first default in modern U.S. history, but it risks panicking financial markets.
The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee on Thursday highlighted Nelson's previous nay votes for the debt ceiling and accused him of playing politics.
But both sides have used the debt talks to advance their political agendas.
In stand-alone Senate debt-ceiling votes in 2003, 2004 and 2006, Republican senators provided nearly all the votes to raise the debt ceiling during the Bush years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voted seven times from 2002 to 2008 to increase the debt limit. McConnell has voted against it three times since Obama took office.
Nelson has kept a relatively low profile during current debt talks — just as he did during the controversial votes on Obama's stimulus and health care plans.
Whether the debt vote is as politically harmful as Obama's other plans remains to be seen. Nelson has covered his political bases in speeches on the Senate floor, calling for the elimination of so-called tax "loopholes." Rather than say he would vote to raise taxes, he reverts to Washington-speak by inveighing against "expenditures in the tax code."
Multiple national polls indicate that about two-thirds of the public supports eliminating the federal debt by cutting spending and raising some taxes. No recent public Florida polls have surveyed public opinion about the debt plans, but surveys show Nelson is just popular enough to win re-election against his two main Republican rivals, former state House Republican leader Adam Hasner and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux.
Hasner and LeMieux — who voted twice against debt-raising resolutions in 2009 and 2010 — say they would vote against both Boehner's plan and Reid's. They say they favor a more conservative approach, passed last week by the House nicknamed "cut, cap and balance."
Nelson, who has almost always pulled in just enough independent voters to ensure re-election, took to the Senate floor last week and again called for a return to the centrist politics that have served him so well.
"It's so partisan and it's so ideologically rigid," Nelson said of the tone in Washington. "People of goodwill are going to have to be able to respect the other fellow's point of view to come together."