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Ben Nelson

Assumed office 
January 3, 2001
Serving with Mike Johanns
Preceded by J. Robert Kerrey

In office
January 9, 1991 – January 7, 1999
Lieutenant Maxine B. Moul (1991-1993)
Kim M. Robak (1993-1999)
Preceded by Kay A. Orr
Succeeded by Mike Johanns

Born May 17, 1941 (1941-05-17) (age 68)
McCook, Nebraska
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Diane Nelson
Residence Omaha, Nebraska
Alma mater University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Occupation Attorney, insurance executive
Religion Methodist

Earl Benjamin "Ben" Nelson (born May 17, 1941) is the Senior U.S. Senator from Nebraska, where he was born and has lived for most of his life. A Democrat, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000.

A native of McCook, in southwestern Nebraska, Nelson earned a B.A. in 1963 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, followed by a M.A. in 1965, and a J.D. in 1970. Nelson's early career as assistant general counsel for Central National Insurance Group of Omaha was followed by service as Nebraska's State Insurance Director before he returned to Central National Insurance as an executive vice president; he eventually became the company's President.[1]

Nelson re-entered politics in 1990, when he was elected the 37th Governor of Nebraska. He was easily re-elected in 1994 with 74% of the vote.[2] Nelson ran for an open seat in the U.S. Senate in 1996, losing to Republican Chuck Hagel, and left the Governor's office in January 1999 due to term limits, after serving two full terms. Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 2000 election after incumbent Bob Kerrey retired.

An April 2006 poll by Survey USA found him to be the Senator with the highest popularity rating, 73%, among his own constituents.[3] In its most recent December 2009 poll, his approval rating was 40%. Commentators have suggested that a reason for this drop was his role in becoming the 60th and deciding vote for cloture on healthcare reform legislation.[4]

On January 10th, 2010 in a interview with NBC's David Gregory on "Meet the Press", California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger accused Democratic leadership in the Senate of illegally buying Nelson's vote to get health care reform passed.[5][6][7][8][9] Nelson's securing of a special fiscal exemption for his state as part of health care reform negotiations was cited as a factor in Republican Scott Brown's surprise election to the US Senate in a January 2010 Massachusetts election.[10][11]


Early life and career

Nelson was born in McCook, in southwestern Nebraska. He is the only child of Birdella Ruby (née Henderson) and Benjamin Earl Nelson.[12][13] He earned a B.A. in 1963, a M.A. in 1965, and a J.D. in 1970 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Nelson made his name and money in the insurance industry. After graduating from law school, Nelson landed a job as assistant general counsel for Central National Insurance Group of Omaha. In 1975, he became state insurance director before going back to work for Central National Insurance as an executive vice president and eventually president.[14] He won his first elected office in 1990 when he became governor of Nebraska.

Political career



Nelson was elected governor in the state's fourth-closest gubernatorial race in history (he won the closely contested Democratic nomination by only 2 votes) in 1990. He was easily re-elected in 1994 with 74% of the vote – the largest margin of victory for a governor in half a century[15]. During his first race for governor, Nelson ran against incumbent Kay A. Orr, the first Republican woman to serve as Governor in United States history.

In 1991, Nelson's plan as Governor was to bridge the gaps between rural and urban areas – a "One Nebraska" – and create a "more efficient and effective state government."[16] He did this by focusing on the assets and values of the state. In 1997, Nebraska produced 300 million gallons of ethanol, more than triple the 1990 production.[17]

During his tenure, Nelson cut spending from the previous administration by 64% while it was scheduled to rise by 13%.[18] He introduced legislation to cut crime through the Safe Streets Act and Juvenile Crime Bill, advocated for low-income families through the Kids Connection health care system, and enacted welfare reforms that helped welfare recipients get the support needed to return to work. He also cut taxes for over 400,000 middle income families in Nebraska.[16]

As governor, Nelson took some conservative stances on issues in right-leaning Nebraska. He pushed welfare reform before it was done at a national level and opposed President Bill Clinton's efforts on health care.[19]

During the 1990 campaign, Nelson attacked Orr's support for a proposed low-level nuclear waste dump in the state. During his tenure, the Nebraska State Department of Environmental Quality denied the dump's application for an operating license, prompting a lawsuit that Nebraska settled for $145 million.

While in office, Nelson oversaw the only three executions in the state of Nebraska since the lifting of the moratorium in 1973. Nebraska's Governor has no exclusive power to commute the death sentence, merely sitting on the Board of Clemency.

Nelson ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1996 when fellow Democrat Jim Exon retired. He was soundly defeated by Republican businessman and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel in one of the noteworthy political upsets of 1996. Nelson left the governor's office in January 1999 after two terms (he was ineligible to run again because of term limits). He was succeeded by Republican Mike Johanns. In 2009, Johanns joined Nelson in the Senate. When he left office, the state had a General Fund surplus balance of almost $300 million and a rainy day fund of $145 million. Nelson cut the sales tax and income tax and cut $157 million in spending. He also was able to pass eight balanced budgets without resorting to special sessions[citation needed].

Election to the Senate

Senator Ben Nelson with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

Nelson was again nominated by the Democrats for the Senate in the 2000 election after his fellow Democrat, incumbent Bob Kerrey, announced his retirement. His opponent was Attorney General Don Stenberg. Nelson won that election with 50.99% of the vote after a campaign in which he spent 50% more ($1,004,985) than his opponent. Despite initially pledging to work together,[20] Nelson and Hagel had a somewhat frosty relationship.[21]

In November 2004, it was widely rumored that President George W. Bush would choose Nelson as his agriculture secretary in the cabinet. In the end, the position went to Nelson's gubernatorial successor, Mike Johanns.

Committee assignments

Political positions and votes


Nelson is one of four self-described pro-life Democrats in the Senate.[citation needed] Nelson is a member of the Democrats for Life of America, a national organization for pro-life members of the Democratic party that advocates a 95% reduction in the number of abortions performed over the next 10 years. In the 2006 election, Nelson was endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life[22] and Nebraskans United for Life[23] – the two largest pro-life organizations in the state. Nelson was strongly supportive of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which places limits on taxpayer-funded abortions in the context of the November 2009 Affordable Health Care for America Act.[24] However, Nelson lost the support of Nebraska Right to Life after he voted in favor of the Senate Democrat version of health care reform.[citation needed]

Cooperation with Republicans

Nelson was the lead Democratic Senator among the "Gang of 14," a bloc of 14 Senators who, on May 23, 2005, forged a compromise on the Democrats' use of the judicial filibuster, thus blocking the Republican leadership's attempt to implement the so-called "nuclear option". Under the agreement among the Gang of 14, Democrats would retain the power to filibuster one of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees only in an "extraordinary circumstance", and the three most conservative Bush appellate court nominees (Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor) would receive a vote by the full Senate. Subsequently, he was the only Democrat to vote in favor of Brown; he was later the first Democratic senator to support Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States. Nelson also voted twice, with three other Democrats, to end Senate debate over Bush's United Nations Ambassador nominee John Bolton.

In an op-ed column, Nelson wrote: "The president's nominees, especially to the Supreme Court, deserve an up-or-down vote, even if the nominee isn't popular with the special-interest groups in Washington."[25]

Former President Bush nicknamed Nelson "The Benator." Originally, Bush nicknamed him "Nellie," but Nelson jokingly complained that he would prefer a "tougher" nickname.[16]


On March 15, 2007, Nelson was one of two Democratic Senators to vote against invoking cloture on a resolution aimed at withdrawing most American combat troops from Iraq in 2008. The vote, requiring 60 votes to pass, was 50 to 48 against.[26]

As a result of traveling to Iraq four times, the latest being in September 2007[27], Senator Nelson took the position that a transition of the mission was necessary in Iraq as opposed to a full withdrawal of troops.[28] His view was supported by the Jones Commission on September 6, 2007 when General James Jones presented a report to Congress claiming that, "The circumstances of the moment may continue to present the opportunity for considering a shift in the disposition and employment of our forces... such a strategy would include placing increasing responsibilities for the internal security of the nation on the ISF, especially in urban areas. Coalition forces could be re-tasked to better ensure the territorial defense of the state by increasingly concentrating on the eastern and western borders and the active defense of the critical infrastructures essential to Iraq."[29] The premise that stability in Iraq would only be achieved through political reconciliation, long a view of Senator Nelson acted on through legislation, was also recommended by General Jones, reporting, "The future of Iraq ... hinges on the ability of the Iraqi people and the government to begin the process of achieving national reconciliation and to ending sectarian violence."[30]

In the spring of 2007, Senators Ben Nelson, Susan Collins of Maine, and John Warner of Virginia authored a list of measures, or "benchmarks", that were included in the Iraq Supplemental bill. These benchmarks allowed for progress to be measured in certain areas such as recognition of minority groups, strengthening of internal security forces, and equal distribution of oil revenue. The President and General Petraeus were then required to report on the advancement of these "benchmarks".[31]

Senator Nelson and Republican Senator Collins also introduced legislation on July 11, 2007 that would transition U.S. troops out of Baghdad. The legislation called for turning over internal security efforts to Iraqi forces after which time the U.S. military would secure the borders, protect the infrastructure, and continue to search for al-Qaeda forces.[28]


Nelson played a vital role in passing the 2001 tax cut. In 2001, Nelson was one of a handful of centrist senators that helped craft the proposal to cut taxes by $1.3 trillion that was ultimately signed into law. In addition to passing the third-largest tax cut in American history, the compromise that Nelson supported freed up more funds for special education, agriculture, and defense spending. Provisions of the tax cut included immediate tax relief, accelerated tax relief for middle-income workers and a repeal of the estate tax.[32] He was also the deciding vote for passage of the 2003 tax cut which accelerated many of the provisions in the 2001 tax cut in addition to benefits for small businesses. As part of this tax package, Nelson teamed up with Senator Susan Collins to include fiscal relief for states suffering from the downturn in the economy. The final package included $20 billion to ensure that low-income families, children, seniors, and persons with disabilities were able to get the health and social services they needed from the state.[33]

The conservative Americans for Tax Reform organization stated, in October 2009, that Nelson is the only Democratic Senator to have signed their Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and launched an advocacy campaign to urge him to oppose the current health care reform proposals in Congress, which they assert contain "billions of dollars in income tax hikes."[34]


In July 2007, fellow Senator Tom Coburn criticized pork barrel spending Nelson had inserted into the 2007 defense spending bill. Coburn alleged that the earmarks would benefit Nelson's son Patrick's employer with millions in federal dollars and that the situation violated terms of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which was passed by the Senate but has not yet been voted on in the House. Nelson's spokesperson said the Senator did nothing wrong[35] and was only acting under "an abundance of caution" when he withdrew the amendment after the new Senate Ethics Rules were passed. Some government watchdogs, including Public Citizen, commented that the earmark probably didn't violate ethics rules.[36] Additionally, Coburn's motives were called into question by more than one publication, as his earmark blasts fell silent about his own state delegation's earmark requests.[37]

Federal Reserve Sunshine Act of 2009

The Federal Reserve Sunshine Act of 2009 is primarily a bill to reform the manner in which the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System is audited by the Comptroller General of the United States and the manner in which such audits are reported.

On July 7, 2009 Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska raised a "point of order" to prevent a vote, claiming that the amendment violated Senate Rule 16 by "legislating" on an appropriations bill. The amendment was effectively removed from the bill although the Senate president agreed that many other GAO audits in the bill also violated Rule 16.

Other votes

Nelson's votes in the Senate have often placed him at odds with the leadership of his party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has said that Nelson is probably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. This perception is supported by a National Journal congressional vote rating from 2006, which placed Nelson to the right of five Senate Republicans (Gordon Smith, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee). Mary Landrieu was the only other Democrat to place to the right of any Republicans (she placed to the right of Chafee). [3] A similar 2007 National Journal congressional vote rating went even further, placing him to the right of eight Senate Republicans (the above five as well as Richard Lugar, Norm Coleman, and Mike DeWine), with Landrieu once again placing to the right of Chafee and being the only other Democrat to place to the right of any Republicans.[38]

Nelson was one of only two Democratic senators to vote against the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Nelson is strongly opposed to replacing the income tax with a national sales tax, a position that finds favor with increasingly many conservatives. He has voted with Republicans on matters of bankruptcy reform, environmental protection, lawsuit reform, and trade. In 2004 he was one of only three Democratic senators to vote to invoke cloture on the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment; in 2006 he was one of only two Democratic Senators to vote that way.[39] He was the only Democratic senator to vote against a 2006 bill that would have extended federal funding for Stem Cell Research. He has, however, voted consistently against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He has also opposed President Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. [4]. Early in Bush's first term he voted with the majority of his party against scrapping President Bill Clinton's expansive new rules on ergonomics regulation for workers; many of his fellow conservative Democrats like John Breaux, Max Baucus, Blanche Lincoln, and Zell Miller voted with Republicans on the issue.

On July 12, 2007, Nelson broke with his party in a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, restoring funding to Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Stimulus plan

Nelson is currently regarded as a close Senate ally of President Obama and the key leaders of the so-called coalition with moderate Republicans to pass a bipartisan stimulus bill. TIME magazine (February 6, 2009) described him as Obama's "ambassador to the right"[40].

Nelson and Susan Collins (R-ME) organized the complete elimination of National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, along with deep cuts to science programs at NASA, NOAA, and NIST. Nelson and Collins' amendment also eliminated funding for Head Start, school improvement, and child nutrition, as well as cutting $60 billion for school construction, which represented the bulk of the cuts. In place, Nelson and Collins organized additional spending on defense operations and procurement and transportation.[5][6]

2006 re-election campaign

Election results by county for Nelson's 2006 reelection bid

Nelson was thought to be in danger of losing his seat in 2006, as it was thought his successor as governor, Mike Johanns, was almost certain to run against him. However, that speculation ended when Johanns was appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. With Johanns' move to Washington, few high-profile Republicans stepped up to run against Nelson, as the state party focused its attention on the governor's race. The Republican nomination was won by Pete Ricketts, a former TD Ameritrade executive.

In the general election, Nelson was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, Nebraska Right to Life [7], Nebraskans United for Life [8], the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses [9], Nebraska Farmers Union PAC, National Farmers Union PAC, the Veterans of Foreign Wars PAC, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, and the Omaha Police Union, all of which are conservative-leaning groups.

Nelson easily defeated Ricketts 64-36%, the highest victory margin for a Democratic Senate candidate in Nebraska since Edward Zorinsky won 66 percent of the vote in his 1982 reelection bid.[10] In doing so, he received the votes of 42% of Republicans and 73% of Independents on top of 96% of those from his own party. He also won all but 12 counties in the western part of the state, a surprising feat in normally heavily Republican Nebraska. [11] [12]

Electoral history

  • 1996 Nebraska United States Senatorial Election
    • Chuck Hagel (R), 56%
    • Ben Nelson (D), 42%
Nebraska U.S. Senate Election 2000
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Ben Nelson 330,366 50.9
Republican Don Stenberg 318,368 49.1
Nebraska U.S. Senate Election 2006
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Ben Nelson (Incumbent) 377,907 63.9 +12.9
Republican Pete Ricketts 213,054 36.1


  1. ^ Lincoln Journal Star, "Nelson's Past Motivates Crusade for Senate Seat," Oct. 1, 2000, page 1A
  2. ^ THE 1994 ELECTIONS: CONGRESS; Who Won Where - The Races For Governor - New York Times
  3. ^ SurveyUSA - 100 US Senator Approval Ratings 05/06 Sort By Approval
  4. ^ Kraushaar, Josh. "Poll: Ben Nelson in political trouble". The Scorecard (blog). 2009-12-29. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^,0,5981485.story
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Karen Tumulty Anatomy of Anger TIME 23 January 2010.
  11. ^ David Herszenhorn In Health Debate, a Struggle to Balance State and Federal Roles New York Times 25 January 2010.
  12. ^ 1
  13. ^ "Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)". Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  14. ^ Lincoln Journal Star, "Nelson's Past Motivates Crusade for Senate Seat," Oct. 1, 2000, page 1A
  15. ^ THE 1994 ELECTIONS: CONGRESS; Who Won Where - The Races For Governor - New York Times
  16. ^ a b c
  17. ^ USDA (;
  18. ^ State of Nebraska Annual Budgetary Reports, 1987-1998
  19. ^ Lincoln Journal Star, Oct. 1, 2000, page 1A, "Nelson's Past Motivates Crusade for Senate Seat"
  20. ^ Nelson, Hagel pledge to work together
  21. ^ Home Page
  22. ^ boardofdirectors
  23. ^ Welcome to Nebraskans United for Life!
  24. ^ Ben Nelson May Become the Stupak of the Senate on Abortion and Health Care
  25. ^ Adler, Jonathan (November 17, 2005). "Nelson on Alito". National Review Online. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 
  26. ^ Toner, Robin (March 15, 2007). "Senate Rejects Measure for Iraq Pullout". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-03-15. 
  27. ^ - 'Have you been to Iraq?' – 76 sens. say they have
  28. ^ a b - Transcripts
  29. ^ Jones Commission Report pg. 127,
  30. ^ Jones Commission Report pg. 130,
  31. ^ Sioux City Journal: Nelson break ranks on Democratic call for Iraq pull out
  32. ^ Congress Adopts Budget Proposal With Big Tax Cut - New York Times
  33. ^ Omaha World Herald, 5/16/2003, "Grassley, Nelson have helped shape tax-cut package in Senate"
  34. ^ Radman, Adam. "Ask Sen. Ben Nelson to Keep His Taxpayer Protection Pledge on Any Health Care Votes." October 26, 2009. Accessed November 6, 2009.
  35. ^ Brendan Dougherty, Michael (2007-07-24). "Omaha Company's Windfall, Hiring of Lawmaker's Son Irks Senator". Fox News.,2933,290532,00.html. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  36. ^ Omaha World Herald, 8/3/2007, "Future of Nelson earmarks unclear",
  37. ^ Omaha World Herald editorial 8/16/2007, The Oklahoman 8/6/2007, Senator attacks 'pork'; State avoids extra trims from Coburn
  38. ^ NATIONAL JOURNAL: 2007 Vote Ratings (03/07/2007)
  39. ^ [1] [2]
  40. ^,8599,1877535,00.html

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Kay A. Orr
Governor of Nebraska
1991 – 1999
Succeeded by
Mike Johanns
United States Senate
Preceded by
Bob Kerrey
United States Senator (Class 1) from Nebraska
2001 – present
Served alongside: Chuck Hagel, Mike Johanns
Party political offices
Preceded by
Helen Boosalis
Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Nebraska
1990, 1994
Succeeded by
Bill Hoppner
Preceded by
J. James Exon
Democratic Party nominee for United States Senator from Nebraska
(Class 2)

Succeeded by
Charlie A. Matulka
Preceded by
Bob Kerrey
Democratic Party nominee for United States Senator from Nebraska
(Class 1)

2000, 2006
Succeeded by
Next election: 2012
United States order of precedence
Preceded by
Maria Cantwell
United States Senators by seniority
Succeeded by
Lisa Murkowski


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