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The Nation

White House Woos Nebraska Democrat to Back Bush Plan

The administration sees Sen. Ben Nelson as crucial to its efforts in advancing legislation that would restructure Social Security.

February 04, 2005|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is a rare Democrat in Washington's highly polarized times.

He and his wife have dined and watched a movie with President Bush. He has traveled with Bush aboard Air Force One. The White House sounded him out about serving the administration as Agriculture secretary.

And Bush, known for his use of nicknames, recently agreed to give Nelson a new one. The senator hated the moniker Bush previously gave him: Nellie. The substitute: Benny.

The wooing of Nelson intensifies today, as Bush visits Nebraska to rally the public -- and, the president hopes, increase the pressure on the senator -- to support the administration's push to restructure Social Security. Nelson plans to meet briefly with Bush before the town hall meeting in Omaha, and then attend the event.

Nelson and a handful of other Democratic senators from states won by Bush in November's election are seen as crucial to the success of the president's Social Security proposal -- his top domestic goal -- and other parts of his ambitious second-term agenda, such as rewriting the tax code and overhauling the legal system.

By far, the toughest proposal to pass will be the plan to allow young workers to divert a portion of their Social Security into private investment accounts. Democratic leaders say their party is united in opposing the idea. But Nelson says he hasn't made up his mind.

Republicans are hoping that if they can win over Nelson, they can portray Bush's plan as bipartisan -- and perhaps turn up the heat on other red-state Democrats to support it.

Nelson has been targeted for heavy lobbying by both sides in the Social Security debate, partly because he has strayed from his party more than any other current Senate Democrat. He has supported a number of Bush's initiatives, including sweeping tax cuts. On Thursday, he was one of the six Senate Democrats to break ranks with their colleagues to support the confirmation of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general.

Asked if he ever took flak from other Democrats for his independence, Nelson said, "They just understand me."

Political realities also have put Nelson in the spotlight of the Social Security debate -- he is facing reelection next year in a state Bush won by 33 percentage points last fall.

A Democratic leadership aide said of Nelson's voting record: "He needs to do what he needs to do to keep his seat."

On Social Security, Nelson clearly needs to be persuaded that Bush's approach would solve the program's projected funding problems. A self-described policy wonk who is eager to pore over actuarial tables, Nelson said he wanted to see details, such as how Social Security taxes that now fund the retirement system could be diverted into investment accounts without forcing a cut in benefits and putting the government deeper in the red.

"Show me the numbers," he said. "Here are the conditions for my support: We can't make it [Social Security] better by making it worse."

He distanced himself Thursday from his colleagues by declining to add his name to a letter to Bush signed by every other Senate Democrat raising doubts about the financial soundness of the president's plan.

"He has said he is willing to listen to the president, and you can't listen when you take positions before the president has an opportunity to offer a real plan," a Nelson spokesman said.

Nelson is a cautious politician by necessity. A former two-term governor, he is an endangered species in Nebraska: a successful Democratic politician.

Nebraska has not voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964. Its other senator -- Chuck Hagel -- its governor and its three House members are Republicans.

Nelson's family illustrates the GOP's dominance in the state -- his parents were Republicans, and his wife was as well (she changed her registration only when he first ran for governor in 1990).

Nelson, 63, is a polished politician who is attentive to appearances; he keeps shoeshine kits under his desk and under his car seat.

He also is known as a practical joker. As governor, he did a skit for "Candid Camera," asking visitors to the state Capitol what they thought of his idea of changing the state's name to something more modern, say, Zenmar.

The son of a utility lineman, Nelson considered a career in the ministry before going to law school. After working in the insurance industry, his entry into politics came with his successful gubernatorial run in 1990. He cruised to reelection in 1994, then in 1996 lost a race for an open Senate seat to Hagel.

He ran again in 2000, winning a close race for the seat vacated by Democrat Bob Kerrey.

A Nelson aide said his boss considered himself a "New Democrat" who did "not want to ban the Bible, burn the flag or promote same-sex marriage."

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