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Exposed to GOP attacks, Florida’s Bill Nelson relieved as shutdown ends

“Finally, commonsense worked,” says the Democratic senator.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., speaks with Capitol Hill reporters after voting to end the shutdown. (Alex Leary  |  Times)
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., speaks with Capitol Hill reporters after voting to end the shutdown. (Alex Leary | Times)
Published Jan. 22, 2018
Updated Feb. 6, 2018

WASHINGTON — As the shutdown came to an end Monday, few lawmakers were more relieved than Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

"You see the smile on my face? I am very happy," the Democrat said as reporters followed him down a hallway. "Finally, commonsense worked."

Throughout, Nelson displayed unease and for good reason: His seat is a top target for Republicans in November and he worried a protracted standoff could play into GOP hands. Already Nelson faced Facebook attack ads and robocalls aimed at Florida voters.

Nelson, seeking a fourth term, stressed that he worked on a solution over the weekend with members of both parties. "I think the American people are going to be cheering that this occurred."

But he and other Democrats upset the party base by surrendering, for now, the issue at the center of the standoff: Protections for Dreamers, immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

All that was secured was a vote on that issue and though support exists in the Senate, the GOP-led House is another matter.

"What was the point, Senator Nelson??" mocked the Republican National Committee, which sent the automated call to 780,000 voters over the weekend, saying he, "recklessly voted to shut down the United States government."

Liberal activists and immigrant advocates said Democrats had given up any leverage. "Voters want to see courage, they want to see authenticity. They don't want to see weakness. They don't want to see spinelessness," said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

She criticized Democrats for lacking a consistent message, while Republicans "walloped" them.

Nelson was so cautious that he would not say Friday how he'd vote on the short-term budget deal and afterward issued a generic statement that did not mention Dreamers and avoided partisan finger-pointing.

Sunday, he got more specific, saying the legislation "omitted the desperately needed hurricane disaster assistance to help Florida recover."

Nelson said in an interview Monday that it was obvious immigration was a central focus of the Democrats' fight and that he wanted to raise other angles.

He predicted a legislative version of DACA, an Obama-era program that protected about 700,000 immigrants from deportation and offered work permits, would pass the Senate and put pressure on the House and President Donald Trump.

"Now we have a path forward," Nelson said, optimism not roundly shared.

"I voted no on the bill today for one reason: It didn't include the Dream Act, as has been repeatedly promised. I'm frustrated and angry that once again we were prevented from voting on that bill," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is also running for re-election. "We have an obligation to these young people. We need to act. It's the right thing to do."

The difference: She's from solidly Democrat California. More vulnerable Democrats took Nelson's approach.

Trump won Florida in 2016, albeit narrowly, and Republicans hope that will put Nelson on the defensive as he faces an expected challenge from Gov. Rick Scott. Nelson said he didn't think people paid much attention to the Facebook ad and robocall, noting the Jacksonville Jaguars had a playoff game Sunday with the New England Patriots. The public also saw little effects of the shutdown, with it going just three days.

But, he acknowledged, "If the shutdown had continued, then that would be a problem."

Jack Shifrel, a Democratic Party leader in Broward County, said Nelson should be credited for pragmatism and that the vote meant the military would not be harmed. As for dreamers, he said:

"The ball is in the court of the Republicans and the Trump administration to do what they are promising and that is to resolve the issue. If they don't, there is going to be a very serious price to pay in November."

Scott on Monday blamed Nelson and Democrats, and Nelson hit back, saying the governor has "done nothing to advance the cause" of immigration reform and that the shutdown was over.

"Whatever he says I think is irrelevant at this point," Nelson said.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who joined the GOP in the 2013 shutdown over Obamacare, voted with the majority early Saturday and again Monday. He spent recent days accusing Democrats of hindering efforts on immigration and disaster funding.

"At a time when we face so much chaos in our politics," Rubio said, "the only thing worse than a short-term spending deal is a government shutdown."

From left, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., confer as they return to the Capitol after a meeting of moderate senators on Day 2 of the federal shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
From left, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., confer as they return to the Capitol after a meeting of moderate senators on Day 2 of the federal shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)