WASHINGTON — A framed yellow cocktail napkin once hung on Sen. Ben Nelson's office wall.
Three numbers were written on it — 1.6, 1.425 and 1.25 — with the center figure circled.
It was a souvenir from negotiations with then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, over the size of tax cuts Congress would approve. The final figure came awfully close, $1.3 trillion.
The office walls now are bare as Nelson prepares to exit the political stage after 20 years of public service in the space between two political parties.
The centrist Nebraska Democrat's farewell address was brief, clocking in at a little more than six minutes — fitting for a man who delighted more in hammering out compromises behind closed doors.
One such deal paved the way for passage of the controversial health care law that came to define Nelson's career. But he enraged die-hard liberals and conservatives alike by trying to pull each closer to the middle.
“He's one of the last ones of a dying breed of moderate or middle-of-the-road senators, or members of Congress who could help weigh in on difficult pieces of legislation and forge a consensus,” said Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Born in McCook, Neb., Nelson graduated from the University of Nebraska, earning a bachelor's degree there, a master's in philosophy and a law degree. He flirted with the ministry but ended up in insurance, first in the private sector and later as the state's director of insurance.
He won a tight race for governor in 1990 over incumbent Republican Kay Orr, then cruised to re-election in 1994. Nelson balanced state budgets, merged departments and cut taxes.
His generally popular moves to keep a radioactive waste disposal site out of Nebraska ultimately led to a rebuke by the courts and a nearly $146 million judgment against the state and its taxpayers.
Nelson actually lost his first bid for the U.S. Senate, to Republican Chuck Hagel, in 1996, before narrowly beating Republican Don Stenberg in 2000.
Once on Capitol Hill, he quickly found himself in the middle of big issues, negotiating the size and scope of the Bush-era tax cuts. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Nelson helped negotiate a compromise over labor issues that threatened to hold up organizing the nation's security apparatus into the new Department of Homeland Security.
Nelson became known as someone who loved to round up a “mod squad” of moderate senators who would hammer out the differences between Republicans and Democrats.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a fellow centrist also leaving the Senate, frequently took part. She said Nelson was able to lead because of his breadth of knowledge and gentle demeanor.
“He wanted to solve problems, very practical, and he had a great sense of humor,” Snowe said.
Nelson took the most pride in his role in the “Gang of 14” he cobbled together to defuse a showdown over President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. The late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., thanked him for saving the tradition of a more collegial Senate.
“I have set out to bring people together and establish partnerships rather than engage in partisanship,” Nelson said.
He, Snowe and other centrists also played key roles in pushing through President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. They pared back the initial price tag to $787 billion, with about half going to tax cuts. Liberals criticized the result for not being bold enough, while conservatives railed that the package itself was ineffective government spending.
What is undisputed is that Nelson often served as a ringmaster. Other senators came to him on the Senate floor to find out about the state of negotiations, and reporters swarmed about him in Capitol hallways.
It was a strategy that often paid off at home. As recently as 2006, Nelson ranked as one of the Senate's most popular members, with pollster SurveyUSA reporting that 73 percent of Nebraskans approved of his performance.
But for all the issues he tackled, Nelson is likely to be remembered most for his role in the ultimate passage of the federal health care law, providing the key 60th vote to advance a Democratic president's signature legislation.
A provision in the law, later eliminated, would have provided Nebraska alone with a complete shield from the law's changes that increased states' Medicaid costs.
Nelson insisted that he was looking out for all states, but critics were relentless, dubbing it the “Cornhusker kickback” and excoriating Nelson for selling out.
Nebraska GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson charged that Nelson had embarrassed the state. “He seeded a national cloud of doubt about the honesty and integrity of all Nebraskans,” Fahleson wrote.
Public reaction and an avalanche of negative ads took a tremendous toll. A World-Herald Poll in the wake of the law's passage put Nelson's approval rating at 42 percent, with disapproval at 48 percent.
Today, Nelson claims vindication in the Supreme Court's decision to allow states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion, which he said was his goal all along.
He also said attitudes back home in Nebraska are changing as people realize the law's benefits — young people able to stay on their parents' insurance plans, senior citizens who will see lower prescription drug costs, new people now getting insurance. He notes that politicians once similarly railed against the creation of Social Security.
“Over a reasonably short period of time, people's attitudes will be changing ... the same way,” Nelson said.
Nelson, 71, told The World-Herald this month that he would not change his health care vote even if he could, though he said he would have preferred to focus on the flagging economy.
“Once that was the agenda that was before us, I chose not to do as others did: turn my tail and run,” he said. “What I chose to do was to try to take what was a bad bill and make it better.”
He paused briefly when asked if his vote was worth the firestorm that followed.
“It was painful,” he conceded. “But, yes, it was worth it. If you are not willing to run the risk of angering the majority to protect the minority, then why would you want to be in this job?”
Nelson never was shy about using the power of the purse to support projects in Nebraska.
His willingness to bring home the bacon earned him criticism from those who saw the moves as wasteful federal spending, but the gratitude of those who said worthwhile endeavors would have faltered without him.
Nelson was particularly focused on delivering a new headquarters for U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue. He also was among those who pushed for a new VA Medical Center in Omaha and a national veterans cemetery for eastern Nebraska, now bound for Sarpy County.
An exact total is hard to nail down, but University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken estimated that Nelson delivered several hundred million dollars in federal money to the university system during his tenure, much of it supporting research.
Those projects included research in agriculture, defense and other areas. They also set the foundation for the university to become a university-affiliated research center with StratCom, which will mean millions in government money and the academic prestige of the research designation.
“The importance of that can't be overstated,” Milliken said.
Nelson's colleagues in Washington recalled a man who rarely pounded his desk or raised his voice.
“(He was) by no means a screamer, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have very strong opinions and principles,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, a retiring Connecticut independent who caucused with the Democrats. “Sometimes we've given each other company and comfort when we just seem to be alone in the Democratic caucus.”
He described Nelson as a personable practical joker, as well as considerate. When Lieberman traveled to Nebraska to endorse Democrat Bob Kerrey, who lost a bid to replace Nelson, Nebraska's senior senator let Lieberman stay at his house and even got up to make coffee before Lieberman's crack-of-dawn flight.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., complimented Nelson on his performance both as governor and senator. “Sen. Nelson was always looking for a way to move the state forward, and to move our country forward,” Johanns said on the Senate floor.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nelson pushed benchmarks for military progress in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a key vote in overturning the Pentagon's “don't ask, don't tell” policy, reversing his earlier stand.
Nelson recalled asking the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, about the values of military honesty and integrity during a Senate hearing on the policy.
“When I was able to put it that way and got his response, then I knew my attitude toward it had to change,” Nelson said.
Now Nelson is off to the private sector. He expects to find a job on D.C.'s K Street, lobbying his former colleagues. He said he will look for a spot on a corporate board and spend lots of time with his family and his hunting buddies, splitting his time between Nebraska and Washington.
He's going to work on his bucket list, which includes a trek up Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro.
During his time on Capitol Hill, Nelson has been a pragmatic institutionalist, said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., director of Indiana University's Center on Congress.
“It's very easy to go into a room and blow it apart if you have differences of opinion and just exacerbate those differences, but what is very hard and very much needed in this country is people who can go into that room ... and try to bring people together,” Hamilton said.
“We don't have enough members of the Congress who are skilled at that. I think Ben was, and I think it'll be a loss to the country when he leaves.”
Click here to view a slideshow of Ben Nelson's career.
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