Sen. Nelson will continue to be a player

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Ben Nelson's still a Democrat, but Tuesday's decisive victory, despite all of the negative advertising Pete Ricketts could buy, has given him license to continue the long independent tradition begun by fellow hometown hero George W. Norris.

Unlike Norris, however, Nelson has stayed with his party while finding ways to work with the opposition.

Again unlike Norris, Nelson has more often drifted to the right of center rather than the left, such as when he and Sen. John McCain of Arizona helped organize the "Gang of 14" to avert a major filibuster over judicial nominees.

We don't know how much it affected most voters' decisions, but Nebraska's decision to send Ben Nelson back to the Senate instead of starting over with Pete Ricketts can't help but give our state more influence in Washington.

As Creighton University political analyst Richard Shugrue said, Nelson's "got the seniority, he's got the gravitas, he's just won the big election, he's positioned himself perfectly because he's a centrist, at the least," Shugrue said. "It's his kind of gig. He would like to be the go-to-guy for making deals. He can talk Republican and Democrat."

But will being in the majority have adverse impact on Nelson's influence? Will being a Democrat in a Senate controlled by that party give Nelson less sway than a swing vote in a Senate controlled by the GOP?

Not really. As conservatives are quick to point out, Democrats got control of Congress because many of them adopted positions more common among Republicans. He'll still be a player among those trying to build a consensus around disputed issues.

And, he'll still hold influence with George W. Bush -- remember the campaign sound byte where the president called him "a man with whom I can work, a person who's willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America"?

As the White House adjusts to being in the minority, it will have to look more and more to a few key lawmakers like McCook's hometown senator.

It was a bit of a thrill for McCook residents to hear congressional candidate Scott Kleeb cite George W. Norris as an inspiration for his political ambitions. In our opinion, Norris doesn't receive the attention he deserves, and perhaps the 3rd District race will help pique young scholars' curiosity about one of Nebraska's leading statesmen.

Voters didn't elect Scott Kleeb, but many of us hope we haven't seen the last of the him. It will be interesting to see how much time he spends in the 3rd District now that the campaign is over.

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