On Wednesday night, Nebraska's Democratic Senator Ben Nelson had the opportunity to cast the 60th vote for an extension of unemployment insurance benefits that would have thrown a lifeline to one million out-of-work Americans who have already seen their benefits expire - not to mention the additional 200,000 who will otherwise continue to be phased out of the program each and every week.
The latest attempt of many, this vote finally forced a break in the previously unanimous Republican filibuster when Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe crossed the aisle to support the extension. Still, one more vote was needed from one of 39 other Republican Senators or from Nelson - the lone Democratic hold-out. Unfortunately, Nelson and all those Republicans once again voted "no" - leaving a million families panicked and imperiled at a time when options are few and there's little talk of help being on the way.
There was no off-set for the estimated $33.9 billion cost of this benefits extension. For weeks, Nelson has drawn a hardline against any new deficit spending - even it was intended to combat and cushion the blows from our nation's current economic climate. Although every Senator is doubtlessly concerned by our nation's growing debt, Nelson has stood alone among Democrats in giving such primacy to controlling the deficit at a time when families are hurting, states are facing massive budget shortfalls, and hopes for a true econonomic recovery appear to stand on shaky ground.
With this debate ongoing, I must confess that my blog, the New Nebraska Network, has remained relatively quiet and even hands off towards Nelson. That mostly has to do with my own mixed feelings about repeated extensions of unemployment benefits as weak and uncreative public policy. While perhaps necessary as a last resort, I'd much rather see the traditional unemployment insurance program respected, with all those tens of billions of additional dollars directed towards actual job creation - perhaps even a federal work program.
Then, there's also been the issue of extending higher rates of federal assistance to the states' Medicaid programs provided by the 2009 stimulus bill. I couldn't be more sympathetic to this cause - EXCEPT for the poison in our state government and in our state's politics that has twisted every good intent behind this funding to serve our Republican Governor Dave Heineman's personal political agenda (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Heineman's shameless abuse of federal dollars has made a mockery of their ever being awarded and has called into serious question the wisdom of any such programs' further extension.
Of course, this most recent legislation was stripped of the added Medicaid dollars for the states and was focuseed more squarely on extending unemployment benfits. Still, Nebraska has the third lowest unemployment rate in the country at 4.9%. At the same time, no fewer than 17 Republican Senators hail from states with unemployment rates higher than 10%.
So, in the bubble of NNN's Nebraska-focused perspective, there hasn't been a whole lot of reason to push back against Nelson's so-called "bailout fatigue." Sure, it's echoed by Republicans and may jeopardize the economic recovery. But, when 17 Republican Senators from states with 10% or more unemployed aren't going to stand up for them and don't even fear the consequences from their own constituents, that really shouldn't be Ben Nelson's problem.
Yet, it is Ben Nelson's problem. That's what I'm finally seeing tonight when he could have cast the vote that would have brought some much-needed relief to so many American families in crisis. Proportionally, fewer of those families live in Nebraska - this time - but they are all Americans and deserved better than a brush off from our nation's leaders.
To be honest, I would still be inclined to give Ben Nelson a pass for voting against this extension of unemployment benefits IF it weren't for the death of Sen. Robert Byrd earlier this week. I may disagree with the immediacy Nelson gives to the struggle against deficit-spending, but I respect his underlying principles and acknowledge they're a good fit for Nebraska. Were it not for the death of Sen. Byrd, Nelson could have postured on this issue to his heart's content. But, so many American families should not be left to suffer and doubt because of an accident of fate.
Byrd would have been that 60th vote for these extended benefits. Weeks from now, Byrd's appointed successor might still have to provide that 60th vote. Nelson, though, could have and should have prevented so much uncertainty by casting that 60th vote in their place and in Byrd's honor. This would not have been an abandonment of principle. It would have been Nelson's demonstrating to the entire country the pragmatism and common sense we should expect from any of our elected officials - which has all but vanished from the Republican Party and has become the unifying PROGRESSIVE principle at the heart of a diverse Democratic caucus.
Alas, it was not to be. As a Nebraskan, allow me to apologize for that failure to our nation's unemployed and to their families. Your emergency is our emergency. Your crisis is our crisis. You will not be forgotten again - at least, not at the New Nebraska Network.