Ben Nelson

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., is headed for retirement from the U.S. Senate.

The Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., will depart the U.S. Senate at the end of the 112th Congress in a few weeks, after lawmakers wrap up some budget-related bills, including (perhaps) a plan to forestall the so-called fiscal cliff that arrives Jan. 1, 2013.

I participated Wednesday morning in what could be one of the last, if not the last, conference calls by Nelson with reporters. Nelson noted that he will give his farewell address at 1 p.m. Wednesday on the Senate floor. He is wrapping up 12 years in the chamber, after winning elections in 2000 and 2006, but not running for re-election this year.

Nelson, 71, said he's heard several farewell speeches, some funny, some more serious.

"It's kind of hard for me to believe it is my turn... In my usual way, it is going to be short and to the point," he said.

Reporters pressed Nelson to flesh out what he will say. Nelson said he will address the partisanship that is wracking Congress and how it results in things like lawmakers dealing with topics (the fiscal cliff is a great example) at the last minute.

It is no wonder people have such "low esteem" for Congress members, he said. A December Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 10 percent of people thought Congress is doing a good or excellent job.

"Rightfully so," Nelson added.

He was glad to be part of the so-called Gang of 14, which helped get rid of a judicial nomination stalement in 2005. Other "gangs" of senators worked together at other times, he said, but bipartisanship "is the exception" rather than the rule.

Nelson turned to address his legacy. He said he was well-liked as a Nebraska governor, so much that he won an election with 74 percent of the vote.

"I sought partnerships rather than partisanship" as governor, he said, and also in Senate.

Nelson cited his vote against the 2001 No Child Left Behind education reform bill, his support for ethanol fuel and he had a key vote that moved ahead a federal health reform package in December 2009. Detractors of that vote derided it as the Cornhusker Kickback, but Nelson said the whole reform package is good for people.

He said he recognizes some people who will get good benefits under health reform will never come to embrace the package passage.

"Let me be clear -- there are some people who will benefit from this directly who will still think it is the wrong thing," Nelson said.

"I think for most people -- who are starting to understand that young people can stay on their parent's (insurance) plans, that seniors can now get diagnostic care and the movement toward having everybody have not just access to health care, but access to affordable care and have insurance protection for those health care needs -- I think people are gonna have a different idea.

"The Supreme Court (June 2012 ruling), I think, in many ways validated what I sought to do by giving the states the option whether or not to expand Medicaid."

U.S. Sen.-elect Deb Fischer, a Republican who serves as a state senator from Valentine, defeated Democrat Bob Kerrey to win the 2012 Senate seat. So Republicans picked up a seat in Nebraska, but overall Democrats will widen control of the chamber when the 113th Congress gavels in.


County and education reporter

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