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Could Senate Republicans Steal Back a Senator?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Posted By TylerRippeteau - Monday, May 4th, 2009 at 6:47 AM
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Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson (right), here with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) 

This piece originally appeared at The Stonecipher Report.

Ever since Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter dropped a political bombshell earlier this week and switched parties there has been talk and speculation about who might be next.  With the Republican Party in shambles, and seemingly shrinking every day, most of that speculation has surrounded moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and even John McCain.
But what about the Democrats?  Are there any Senators among their ranks who might be contemplating a leap across the aisle to negate the Democrat's gain of Sen. Specter?  Maybe, but who?

Evan Bayh of Indiana?
Probably not.  Bayh is very closely tied to the Clintons and he would hate to end up like Bill Richardson and have James Carville call him Judas.  Furthermore, the Senator from Indiana has recently expressed the desire to create a group similar to the Blue Dog Democrats in the House made up of some of the more conservative Democrats, like Ben or Bill Nelson of Nebraska and Florida respectively.
Speaking of the B. Nelsons, like Sen. Bayh, Sen. Bill Nelson was rumored to have been on Obama's list of potential VP candidates and has, so far, acted more like a friend to Obama than a foe.
That other B. Nelson, however, Ben of Nebraska, hasn't been quite so friendly to the president.  In fact, Ben Nelson has been more of a thorn in Obama's side than anything else.
This comes as no real surprise.  Even before Obama took office, many openly wondered why Nelson calls himself a Democrat in the first place.  It didn't take too long for those questions to become even more pertinent.  First it was Nelson's successful efforts to lop billions of dollars off of the stimulus bill, then it was his echoing of Republican attacks against Obama's Office of Legal Counsel nominee, Dawn Johnson and most recently it has been the Nebraskan's stubborn support of student lending institutions who are fighting to keep their government subsidies that the Obama Administration wants to take away.
It is this latest, somewhat obscure issue that threatens to drive an even bigger wedge between Ben Nelson and the Democratic Party.
The current student loan program is basically a giant giveaway to the banking industry.  They offer student loans at a reasonable, but not great interest rate, and then the government guarantees the loan, effectively removing any element of risk for the banks.  This is the issue Senator Nelson has chosen to dig his feet in on, vowing to block any efforts to change the system.
But the Obama Administration seems to be getting fed up with Nelson's antics and has struck a deal with Congress to use a process called reconciliation in order bypass any potential roadblocks from Nelson.  Reconciliation can be used on budget resolutions and once it is triggered the resolution is not subject to a filibuster. 
Senator Nelson's staff is publicly claiming that they are not the only targets of the use of reconciliation in this case, but privately, there is a pretty good chance that Mr. Nelson is fuming over this one.  Will this lack of respect from a Democratic president be enough to push the already-conservative Senator out of the party?  Probably not, but if he chooses to pick a few more fights with the president before Al Franken finally gets seated, it may be worth keeping an eye on Nebraska.
Sen. Nelson would have plenty to gain from a switch in party.  For starters, he is the only Democrat representing Nebraska in the U.S. Congress and the state remains one of only five that still has a Republican majority in terms of party registration.  He was re-elected by a wide margin in 2006, but a Democrat in Nebraska is never truly safe (except for the most interesting state senator of all-time, Ernie Chambers).
His departure to the GOP could also lead to a bigger and more stable fundraising base.  Inside the state he would become a part of the more entrenched and powerful party and outside the state he would likely become a hero to the anti-Obama right-wing.  His national profile would skyrocket and, if he played his cards right and timed the jump until just after Al Franken gets seated, he would forever be known in right-wing circles as the man who killed the Al Franken buzz.
What would all of the cost Mr. Nelson?  His chairmanship of the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.  He can probably find it in him to let that go.


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