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Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson may be a dying breed — a Senate moderate.
Politicians like Nelson who relish the art of bipartisan deals over ideological victories are becoming scarce commodities in modern Washington, where partisan politics increasingly rules both chambers of Congress.
In today's environment, moderates like Nelson have a hard time getting elected, let alone brokering deals, said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"Certainly, the days of compromise in the Senate are gone," said Adkins. "In order to see compromise come back, I think we'd have to see some really serious, fundamental changes in how politics are conducted."
Nelson on Tuesday became the seventh Senate Democrat to opt out of a re-election fight. The 70-year-old former governor said he plans to pursue other job opportunities next year, after his time in the Senate expires.
He doesn't know what future awaits, but he said he has been comforted by other former senators who called and said there is "life on the other side."
"I have no plans to retire. No plans to retire. Zero," a smiling Nelson said in an interview Wednesday at his west Omaha office.
Nelson said he has enjoyed his 11 years in the Senate but acknowledged a growing partisanship that has made it more difficult for moderates to work with members on both sides.
"I think we made a great deal of progress because, when we worked with our colleagues, we worked from the middle," he said. "The polarizing has made it more difficult recently."
Nelson's entire political career has revolved, in large part, around his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans. He is a Democrat who won statewide races in a Republican-dominated state by stressing his moderate credentials.
Early in his Senate career, he worked with Republican President George W. Bush to pass the 2001 tax cuts, earning him the ire of some Democratic colleagues.
During a visit to Omaha, Bush called Nelson a "person ... willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America."
Nelson also worked with Democrats. Most notably, he voted in favor of President Barack Obama's health care legislation, which cost him considerable political points back home, where the law was unpopular.
Perhaps his most memorable bipartisan moment came in 2005, when Nelson helped form a group known as the "Gang of 14" that helped end judicial filibusters in the Senate and helped Bush's judicial nominees win confirmation.
Not much is left of the Gang of 14 these days. Five of its members have left the Senate. Two others, including Nelson, are retiring.
It's an entirely different Senate than six years ago, said David DiMartino, a former Nelson staffer who left the office in 2008.
The Senate has become "less enjoyable" for Nelson as partisanship has grown, DiMartino said. "For somebody who thrives on coming up with a deal, the environment is such that those opportunities are so rare at this point."
There are several reasons the Senate has become more partisan, including the fact that voters as a whole appear to be evenly divided, said Adkins.
The days of Democrats or Republicans controlling the U.S. House for decades appear gone, at least for the near future. Now, in every election cycle, the two parties fight out closely contested elections. Landslides are rare, and no party has a lock on the House or Senate, Adkins said.
Money is driving much of the increased partisanship, he said. Independent groups driven by ideology can pour millions of dollars into a race, helping propel the "true believers" in each political camp.
"While voters might like people who are moderate and middle of the road, the party elites don't," Adkins said. "And the party elites are having a lot more influence today."
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