Ben Nelson's Bequest

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JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 15, 2010

Ben Nelson's Bequest

The Hill reports on the state of negotiations in the House:

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who voted against the House healthcare bill in November, said on "Fox News Sunday" that he has an "open mind" about the final measure. Those kind of public comments invite long discussions with the Speaker, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and/or the president.

Holding out can lead to benefits. Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who were undecided days before the Nov. 7, 2009, House healthcare vote, got language inserted in the measure for their districts.

Horsetrading, however, can be a dangerous game when the spotlight is so bright. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) secured language in the upper chamber measure that would have given his state preferential treatment on Medicaid payments. The public, including Nebraska constituents, lashed out against the deal, dubbed the "Cornhusker kickback." Nelson's political stock took a hit and he has since called for it to be scrapped.

This could actually be a major advantage for the party, if the leadership plays it right. The problem is that, while every Democratic member would be better off with the bill passing than failing, they each have the incentive to withhold their vote in exchange for concessions. The party's problem is that if every member does this, or even if enough members do this, then the bill gets bogged down with hostage-taking and filled up with easily-attacked political handouts.

The good news is, or ought to be, that the party leadership can point to Nelson's Medicaid deal as a reason for members not to make parochial demands. A deal Nelson thought would be a home-state winner turned into the biggest blunder of his career. If the party leadership can persuade members that their biggest risk is becoming the next Ben Nelson, then the process of whipping votes get a whole lot easier.

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posted in: jonathan chait, ben nelson, dennis cardoza, jason altmire, jim costa, rahm emanuel, california, nebraska, pennsylvania, fox news sunday, white house

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