Ben Nelson Sweepstakes 

Posted: 10:15 pm Thursday, December 17th, 2009

By Jamie Dupree

No longer is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) the Most Wanted Senator on Capitol Hill when it comes to health care reform.  That title is now squarely being held by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), who can pave the way for a vote before Christmas, or delay action into the New Year.

While Lieberman walked by himself through the halls of the Capitol on Thursday, it was Nelson who was mobbed like a rock star as he made his way to and from the Senate floor, with reporters looking for any hint of whether he would back or deep-six this health bill.

Nelson did his typical back and forth on Thursday, at times making it seem like he was going to vote to block the bill and at others, sounded like he could find his way to voting yes.

Asked about negotiations on abortion funding restrictions in the Democratic health care bill, Nelson told a radio station in his home state, “Without further modifications, it isn’t sufficient,” as he made clear that his vote would not be to cut off debate and invoke cloture.

“That (abortion) alone is a reason not to vote for cloture,” Nelson added.

When asked about whether the bill would be finished by Christmas, Nelson wondered if the interviewer was asking about next Christmas, sending a clear signal that he didn’t want to be rushed.

That same sentiment came from Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who met with President Obama again on Thursday, as the White House looks for an extra vote.

But Snowe told reporters after the meeting that the idea of a vote by Christmas was “totally unrealistic” and that she would not be voting for the bill (and neither will her Maine colleague Sen. Susan Collins).

So Democrats must have all of their 58 Senators and two Independents voting for them.

That made the vote of Sen. Robert Byrd (R-WV) all the more important, because Democrats can’t afford to lose one vote for any reason.

The 92-year old Byrd has been ill for much of the last two years, and has voted only 41% of the time this year.  He last voted on Sunday, but missed every vote the next four days.

Byrd though was there at 1 am on Friday morning, as the Senate voted to shut off debate on the Defense budget bill.  He will need to make that same trek back to the Capitol several more times over the next week if Democrats are to have any chance of approving a Senate bill.

Of course, it won’t matter if Ben Nelson won’t cut a deal with Democratic leaders.  It won’t matter if Democrats don’t have 60 votes.

Stay tuned.