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Three years ago, Republican Ben Sasse gave a speech in Fremont in which he argued that Republicans had little chance of repealing President Obama's signature health care law.
He also called the law an “important first step” in thinking about health care, although he expressed dismay at the creation of a new entitlement in a country already struggling to pay its bills.
Today, Sasse is running for U.S. Senate in Nebraska as a Tea Party favorite, and gone are any doubts he may have harbored about whether the 2010 law can be repealed. Also gone are any words that interfere with his message: that the law is very bad.
Sasse today is a full-throttle opponent of the law, saying that if it is left to stand, it will be the death of the American idea.
He has vowed to work for its repeal, saying he would have sided with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his recent effort to defund the law — a tactic that led to a partial shutdown of the federal government.
Sasse is one of four Republicans seeking the GOP nomination.
As a newcomer to politics, Sasse does not have a voting record. But he does have a long history of putting his views on the record. As assistant secretary of Health and Human Services from 2007 to 2009, he advised then-President George W. Bush on health care issues.
Sasse also has written a slew of opinion pieces and given hundreds of lectures across the country on the health care law.
Those writings and speeches are a far cry from Sasse's hard-line stance today.
And those articles are now circulating in state GOP circles. The campaign of a key rival, former State Treasurer Shane Osborn, has sent reporters some of the articles, which could become a factor in the race.
As a newcomer to Nebraska politics, one of Sasse's jobs on the campaign trail is to win the trust of GOP voters, many of whom are sympathetic to the Tea Party. In circulating the articles, Osborn's campaign appears intent on questioning whether Sasse is a true conservative.
In his writings, Sasse comes off as a thoughtful critic of Obama's health care law — no fan of the legislation itself, but analytical about how the law would work and the broader need for health care reform.
For example, instead of vehemently opposing the controversial individual mandate in the health care law, Sasse wrote in a 2009 editorial in Bloomberg Businessweek that there is “emerging consensus that this might be a good idea,” although he questions how the mandate would be enforced. He also repeatedly sympathized with Obama's desire to provide affordable health care coverage to all, calling it a “laudable goal.”
But he also repeatedly criticized the president for pushing forward a bill without regard to cost, and without having a serious discussion with the public about what a new entitlement would mean for the nation's budget deficit.
His criticism is not confined to Democrats. He also takes issue with Republicans for not engaging in a serious and constructive discussion about health care. He was quoted last summer in the Chautauquan Daily — a newspaper in the southwestern corner of New York state — decrying the “rhetorical hysterics of the right and left.”
Sasse, who is a Fremont native and president of that city's Midland University, has become a force in the U.S. Senate race since raising more than $800,000 in less than two months. He has won the support of several key conservative groups, including endorsements from the Tea Party-affiliated Senate Conservative Fund and former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.
Sasse said that despite some of the language in his articles, he has always been a staunch opponent of the health care law and its individual mandate. He said that many of the speeches and articles were written or given when he was on the lecture circuit, where he was asked to talk about the emerging legislation and to give his opinion about the political landscape.
Sasse said he looked at the issue from the perspective of a health care consultant or political analyst, feeling it was not the right forum for personal views.
“I was describing, as a strategic consultant, where we were at in the health care debate. That's different from me being able to advocate. That's not what people were asking me to do,” he said.
“I have never changed my position on thinking Obamacare is a bad idea,” Sasse added.
Though the Osborn campaign has given copies of the editorials and speeches to the news media, Osborn did not want to talk about them. When contacted directly, Osborn said he preferred to focus on his campaign and his own opposition to the health care law.
“I think my record is clear, where I've been on Obamacare. That's what I want to stick to,” Osborn said.
An unlikely voice has come to Sasse's defense. Howard Dean, the former Democratic presidential candidate and ex-governor of Vermont, said he knows better than most that Sasse has long opposed the health care law and the mandate.
Dean and Sasse have known each other for several years and debated the health care law on the lecture circuit, for a fee, about six times in 2011 and 2012.
In the debates, Dean supported the law and Sasse opposed it.
Although Dean said he would never vote for Sasse, he respects him and calls him an old-style conservative who relies on facts rather than demagoguery to argue his case.
“His conservatism is not manufactured, the way some of the Tea Party is. He's a very solid, constructed conservative,” said Dean. “I find the Tea Party to be inflammatory. And I often find that Ted Cruz makes claims that are not so. Ben and my disagreements are based on facts.”
Dean said Sasse's biggest concerns — as conveyed in many of his articles and speeches — is the growth of entitlement spending without any thought given on how to pay for those programs in the future.
“He believes that deficit spending is a huge problem and Obamacare will make it worse,” Dean said.
Sasse does have impressive health care credentials — most notably from the time he was appointed assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under Bush, working under HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt.
Sasse's relationship with Leavitt has recently come under scrutiny.
Since leaving government, Leavitt opened a firm known as Leavitt Partners. To the dismay of some Republicans, the firm has focused its efforts on helping states implement the health insurance marketplaces under the health care law.
Osborn's campaign recently distributed a PowerPoint presentation that appears to have come from Leavitt Partners. It lists Sasse as a senior adviser to the firm.
However, Sasse and Leavitt Partners both have denied that Sasse ever worked for or received payment from Leavitt Partners. Sasse's spokesman, Tyler Grassmeyer, said the PowerPoint information was clearly a “mistake.”
“I've never made a single dime doing anything with the implementation” of the health care law, Sasse said.
After getting out of government work, Sasse signed on with the World Wide Speakers Group and began giving speeches around the country for up to $15,000 each.
He said he has given hundreds of speeches, although he emphasized that he has never charged for a speech in Nebraska.
Sasse argues that many of the articles and comments that he made were written to address current news events.
For example, he said his comments about individual mandates in Bloomberg Businessweek came when Congress was debating the bill. He said he was simply acknowledging that some people believed the mandates were a good idea. That didn't mean he thought they were a good idea, Sasse said.
Asked why he didn't make that plain in his article, Sasse said that wasn't his job at the time. “You're right. In 800 words, I didn't tell you everything I think of under the sun. I wasn't asked to ... that wasn't the point of the piece,” he said.
He also said his comments in a 2010 article published in the Fremont Tribune, after he spoke at a health care summit, have to be taken in context. At the time, the health care law had passed, and Sasse said he was asked to talk about political realities.
As for his comment that the law was an “important first step,” Sasse argued that was a statement of fact. The law is one of the biggest pieces of legislation passed by Congress in decades, and in that sense it is “important,” Sasse said.
“It's giant. It's the biggest piece of legislation passed in the last 40 years,” Sasse said. “It's important. That doesn't meant it's a good step.”
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