Ben Nelson embarrassed the Senate, Democrats and the state of Nebraska by holding out for a ransom of pork in exchange for providing the 60th vote needed to pass the Senate's health care package. This legislation may be about reforming health care, but the bargaining process was one of the more corrupted in modern political history. No wonder the American people are so divided over the measure — and so fed up with the games in Washington.
Nelson did not simply secure a perk or two for his state. That's what elected representatives in the House and Senate do. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., for example, was able to grandfather benefits for 800,000 seniors in Florida (and a smaller number in other states) who are covered under the private Medicare Advantage plans. There are other winners: the AARP, longshoremen, the American Medical Association. Throwing a bone here and there is part of the cost of expanding health insurance to 30 million Americans.
The difference with the Nebraska Democrat is that he held up the bill on seemingly principled grounds and then sold out when the price was high enough. Nelson long complained that a public insurance option would hurt the private market. "I don't want a big government, Washington-run operation," he said before Thanksgiving. Then he turns around and secures a deal whereby federal taxpayers will cover the entire cost under the bill for expanding Medicaid in Nebraska. And several doctor-owned hospitals, including one in Nebraska, would be exempt from a ban barring physicians from referring patients to facilities they own.
The wheeling and dealing even disgusted Nebraska's governor, who over the weekend sought to distance himself from Nelson's actions, saying Nebraskans did not want special treatment, "only a fair deal." It is too late for that. But it is not too late to shed some light on this sleazy episode. The attorneys general of seven states are looking into the deal. That may be politics, too. But this was crass gamesmanship on an issue of great national importance. Let the sunshine in and let Nelson take his lumps.