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Ben Nelson on 'Cornhusker Kickback': I Never Asked for Just Nebraska

5 years ago
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The "Cornhusker Kickback" has become synonymous with the charge that Democrats used special deals and payoffs to get senators to vote for their health care reform bills.

But Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) -- criticized, unfairly he says, for the Cornhusker Kickback -- told Politics Daily in an interview that the media got it wrong in reporting that he had traded his vote in return for the federal government paying his state's share of significantly expanding the Medicaid rolls, which is required by the new law.

Although the Senate's reconciliation bill extends Nebraska's deal to all 50 states, the story of the "Cornhusker Kickback" lives on as a symbol of what went wrong with the health care negotiation process. Here is Nelson's take on what happened:

Q. Are you comfortable with the way the president resolved the treatment of Medicaid reimbursements for states in the final bill?

A. Yes. I'm comfortable with it. Obviously I'd like to see it eliminated entirely for the states. But this at least gives some additional relief to the states and is now the "Cornhusker Kickoff," because it's for everybody. It never was going to be just for Nebraska.

Q. Do you feel like you were unfairly attacked for the Cornhusker Kickback?

A. Yes. Yes, and intentionally, unfairly attacked by many. [Republicans] were using that as a matter of misinformation, knowing what the plan was, what the track record was, what I started asking for, for everybody. They were using that as a method to try to kill the bill.

Q. Even some people from your own state were critical of it.

A. Well, they fell for it. They heard this misinformation. Reporters really were not doing the investigative reporting. I was only asked by two reporters what really happened. Everybody else reported on another report, from another report, from another report.

Q. So for the record, what did happen?

A. I outlined for the White House why it was unfortunate to have another unfunded federal mandate, and particularly why it was foolish to do it when we're already being asked to help the states trying to pay for their current share of unfunded federal mandates.

The bill was adding another unfunded mandate in 2017. When will we bail them out again? 2018? 2019? It just didn't make sense.

[Negotiators] understood what I asked for; they knew what I was going for. The White House agreed, everybody agreed, done.

Q. Is there anything you would have done differently in the process if you could do it again?

A. I would have been more careful about the language that was put in the bill. The understanding was clear that what I wanted was to provide it for everybody, but my vote was never conditioned on it. It was conditioned on two things -- getting rid of the public option and adding the Nelson language on federal funding of abortion. Those were the two I insisted on. I made a list of other suggestions that [negotiators] put in, but I didn't pay any attention because my vote wasn't conditional on those.

Q. So, the White House just threw that in there for extra spice?

A. Yes, and then suddenly on the Senate floor I'm hearing about "Omaha steaks" and I can't figure out what's going on.

So I went to the Senate floor to find out what [the Republicans] were saying I did, and somebody had coined 'Cornhusker Kickback.' That was done to kill the bill and cause public resentment toward it. And it was successful.

If it had been a higher priority, I would have paid more attention to the language that went into the bill. I just said, "Look, this is what needs to be done," and left it for others to do, and it got identified in this way. So, instead of getting credit up front for blowing the whistle on a $35 billion unfunded mandate being passed right on to the states, it blew back in my face in this way.

While I may not get a thank you from my governor, I hope that the other governors will realize I blew the whistle on the mandate and if this passes, they'll be relieved from that financial obligation.

Q. What went through your mind the first time you heard "Cornhusker Kickback?"

A. I thought, "What's this all about?" I didn't seek anything simply or strictly for Nebraska. Then I realized what [negotiators] had done when they ran with the language, and that [Republicans] were tying it together. I'm not critical of other people trying to get something for their states, but mine wasn't simply for Nebraska.

Q. So, you never asked just for Nebraska?


A. No. Never. As a matter of fact, I sought it for everybody else. The first thing I asked for was a an opt-in or an opt-out for all the states. But they put in Nebraska.
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