Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Bill Nelson, health care and "the deciding vote"

A television ad from the 60 Plus Association attacks Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

In Florida, a campaign ad from the 60 Plus Association attacks Sen. Bill Nelson for being "the deciding vote" that passed the Democratic health care law.

In Ohio, the conservative political group says Sen. Sherrod Brown was "the deciding vote." In Michigan, a Republican committee says it was Sen. Debbie Stabenow.  But in Pennsylvania, the group said it was Sen. Bob Casey. And in Missouri, voters were told it was Claire McCaskill.

Can there be that many "deciding votes"?

The ads reflect the gamesmanship and exaggeration that occurs every election year as groups and political candidates attack incumbents for their votes. Rather than just say the senator voted for a bill, the attackers up the ante by declaring it was the single vote that made the difference.

There’s a sliver of truth -- in the case of the health care law, all the Democratic senators were needed to pass the bill. But to call each one "the deciding vote?"

"If a football game was decided 45 to 49, the winning team needed every one of those touchdowns," said Gregory Koger, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies the Senate. "But you can't say every touchdown was the winning touchdown."

Because the health care law passed with 60 votes -- the minimum needed to stop filibusters -- opponents of the law say senators who voted for the law cast "the deciding vote." In Florida, that’s Nelson.

In reality, though, while Nelson voted for the law, he didn’t play a particularly pivotal role in passing it.

Hold-outs in the Senate

The vote the ads refer to was on Dec. 24, 2009. After months of deliberations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was ready to bring the bill to the floor. Reid needed every one of the Democratic senators to get the bill passed because no Republicans were willing to support it. Reports from the time indicate Reid was most concerned with securing the votes of Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

The negotiations happened behind closed doors; one of the most detailed stories about what happened was reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Reid knew that he had to keep Lieberman in the tent. And the next night, when Democrats gathered for a special caucus meeting, Reid did not call out the Connecticut senator, focusing instead on the need to unite and move forward.

... Reid turned to (Ben) Nelson, who had a long list of demands, including more restrictions on funding abortions and full federal funding to expand Nebraska's Medicaid program. (Most other states would be forced to pick up some of the cost.)

Reid was closing in on a deal.


Since then, the consensus has been that Ben Nelson (no relation to Bill), was the crucial vote. Nelson’s demands for Nebraska became widely derided by the law’s opponents as "the Cornhusker Kickback."

Still, the special treatment for Nebraska isn’t the first time a senator has managed to wrest special favors for back home, said Donald Ritchie, the historian of the Senate.

"Those hold-outs in the end can play a very pivotal role, and they often do," he said. "But that’s everyday stuff on Capitol Hill."

Nelson of Florida’s role

So what was the role of Florida’s Nelson?

In the summer of 2009, he was quiet about health care reform -- angering some Democratic activists. But in September he jumped into the fray -- offering amendments about Medicare Advantage and Medicare drug benefits. Nelson sounded cautiously supportive in news accounts, saying he had some criticisms, but calling the bill a "starting point."

By November, during public stops in the Tampa Bay area, Nelson predicted the Senate would pass a health care bill. "If we don't do something about health care, it's going to run our country into bankruptcy." Though Nelson said the legislation had "flaws," he was supportive of it through the fall until its final passage in March 2010.

Earlier this month, Nelson took to his Facebook page to denounce the TV ads now against him. He too pointed a finger at Ben Nelson as "the deciding vote."

He said the ad "repeats an outrageous claim that I cast the deciding vote on health care reform legislation that cuts Medicare. First off, fact-checkers have found the legislation didn’t cut Medicare. And second, it was BEN NELSON, not me, who cast the deciding vote."

Between now and the election, it's likely that every Democratic senator facing re-election will be labeled the deciding vote. But we don't see much truth in that claim.

In the case of Bill Nelson, for example, it's true that his vote was crucial -- as were the other 59 votes. But describing him as the "deciding vote" suggests he had some extraordinarily pivotal role, and that’s not the case. Nelson had cautiously been a supporter for months as he tried to amend the law.  We rate the claim Mostly False.