Since his announcement Saturday that he would be the crucial 60th vote necessary to secure cloture on the health care reform bill and avoid a likely Republican filibuster, Nelson has faced a storm of criticism from conservatives in both parties – and some liberal groups.
“I couldn't create the opportunity to be the 60th vote. It happened,” Nelson said on State of the Union. “If you think it's fun having both sides on an issue mad at you when you're trying to do something in good faith, just think, it's like going home and getting bit by the family dog. So - who enjoys that?” Nelson also said Sunday.
As part of the deal announced Saturday, the Nebraska Democrat said he would supply the key vote to move the bill ahead if it included provisions that did not allow federal funds to be used to pay for abortions. To satisfy Nelson, leading Senate Democrats agreed to amendments that will allow states to opt out of providing abortion coverage when the statewide insurance exchanges called for by the bill are set up. In addition, insurance providers who do provide abortion coverage would be required to pay for the procedure solely with premiums collected from policyholders. In order to ensure that federal funds are not used to pay for abortions, insurance companies would be required to set up a firewall between subsidies paid by the federal government and premiums paid by policyholders.
Responding to criticism from fellow lawmakers and advocacy groups that oppose abortion rights, Nelson pointed out that his effort to get even stronger prohibitions on abortion funding – like those passed in the House - had already failed in the Senate.
Asked why he did not hold out for even tougher restrictions since he was in the position to supply the 60th vote, Nelson suggested Sunday that instead of including prohibitions like those in the House health care reform bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might have opted to use a procedural maneuver called reconciliation that would allow some portions of Democrats’ health care reform agenda to be passed with a simple majority in the Senate.
“Then you would have gotten what’s in the bill right now,” Nelson said Sunday defending his negotiation of the contentious issue of abortion funding.
Nelson also defended another controversial part of his agreement that has caused some of his fellow lawmakers to be green with envy. Under the deal, the federal government will foot the bill in perpetuity for any additional Medicaid costs incurred by Nebraska as a result of passing the health care reform bill.
“I didn't ask for a special favor here. I didn't ask for a carve-out,” Nelson told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King. “What I said is the governor of Nebraska has contacted me, he said publicly he's having trouble with the budget. This will add to his budget woes. And I said, look, we have to have that fixed.”
Pressed on whether Democratic claims about the bill’s ability to lower overall health care costs in the long term could be believed if other states sought deals like the one he negotiated on behalf of Nebraska, Nelson suggested that his deal points out why the federal government should not impose unfunded mandates on states.
“Well, if the money isn’t there, then the requirement needs to go away,” Nelson told King.
“It's one or the other,” Nelson also said Sunday. “If we're going to mandate these things on a state, then we have to pay for them. We don't pay for them three years, then pull back on them, leave the mandate there and pull back the federal money. That was my objective, to get that fixed.
“They fixed it this way. It's not the way I would have fixed it, but it's fixed, at least at this point in time. But I think in the future, either the mandate goes away or the federal government provides the money, as it should.”
Asked about the rampant partisanship that has characterized the health care reform debate on Capitol Hill, Nelson said it was unprecedented during his time in the Senate.
“The high intensity here is as harsh and as unforgiving and unrelenting as I have ever seen it in my nine years,” Nelson said Sunday on CNN.
And Nelson also defended his go-it-alone approach in the middle of the health care reform fight.
“I'm an independent-minded sort of person,” Nelson said on State of the Union. “And I think that's demonstrated. I don't take my marching orders from a party or a group or any other entity. And, as in this case, I put together what I thought was appropriate, and I'm sorry that both sides didn't enjoy it. And that's the way it works. I'm an independent type of person. I'm not a lone eagle. I do consult. I do get input. But at the end of the day, I make my own decision about what to do.”
Finally, the conservative Democrat cautioned that his party could still lose his vote in the contentious weeks ahead.
“I suppose putting in a public option would do it,” Nelson said Sunday.
The conservative Democrat added that imposing a tax on wealthier Americans, a funding mechanism employed in the House health care reform bill, could also cause him to withhold his vote for the final version of the bill.
Updated: 6:02 p.m.