The Birth Of "The Nebraska Bloc"?by Kyle Michaelis
Longtime Foes Nelson & Hagel Present United Front As Hagel Condemned By Mentor McCollister
The Omaha World-Herald's Thursday Editorial page - so foolishly and short-sightedly hidden away from view by online readers - was an absolute hodgepodge of political intrigue centered on debate of the Iraq War, opening whole new worlds of speculation about the future of Nebraska politics.
Unsurprisingly, in its lead editorial, the World-Herald offered an unqualifed endorsement of President Bush's expected veto of a Congressional appropriations bill including benchmarks for progress in Iraq, a possible redefining of the mission, and a non-binding target date for troop withdrawal. I'm not going to waste any time typing up what was essentially an endorsement of Bush's authority to conduct an endless war without oversight or input by Congress.
To be honest, I respect certain Constitutional concerns about Congressional interference in military operations, but denying that Congress has any powers and responsibilities over these matters is an assault on democracy itself. Congress - and the American people - must have some means to assert themselves against a President whose dictates have become increasingly tyrannical and out-of-touch.
If the World-Herald is going to condemn Congress for the actions it has taken to make some end possible to this unpopular and unjust war, then it has an obligation to discuss how Congress might better oppose a President and his policies unless he's considered to have absolute authority over U.S. Armed Forces.
But, the real action - the important stuff on Thursday's editorial page - had nothing to do with the World-Herald's opinion on Iraq. No, for the purposes of Nebraska politics, there were two other eye-popping elements that could well reverberate and have unforeseen consequences for years to come.
For starters, Senators Ben Nelson and Chuck Hagel wrote a joint article explaining their united front in casting what can honestly be called the two deciding votes allowing Congress to take this next step in challenging President Bush's Iraq War policy.
Just one week prior, both Nelson and Hagel had voted against similar measures imposing timelines for troop withdrawal. The vital role each played in crafting a more acceptable alternative proved indispensible, with the resulting changes in their respective votes making all the difference, turning what had been a two vote shortfall into a two vote advantage.
Thanks to Nelson and Hagel, the bill passed 50-48 in the Senate - on final reading passing 51-46. So, as soon as joint legislation between the two Houses of Congrss can be worked out in Committee at some point in mid-April, it will be off to President Bush's desk, where he will veto and disregard the voice of the people at his own peril.
Now, the fact that Nelson and Hagel are voting together is one thing. Then, there's also the fact that both their votes and their voices have proven so disproportionatly important in the national debate. As a political observer, though, the most intriguing fact might simply be that Nelson and Hagel have demonstrated such an unexpected and previously unheard-of united front.
Voting together? That's going to happen in a legislative body, no matter the years of supposed bad blood between Nelson and Hagel going back to the 1996 election and still very much in evidence in last year's race pitting Nelson against Pete Ricketts. But now, suddenly, they're not only voting together. It seems like they're actually working together.
On the most important issue of our day, the American people just saw the power and potential of what could be called the Nebraska bloc.
Although very different in terms of personality and approach, both Hagel and Nelson have revealed a willingness to break with strict partisanship that is very much reflective of Nebraska politics' singular emphasis on the nonpartisan ideal. In so closely divided a Senate with their respective positions as outsiders in their own parties - Nelson because he's more conservative and Hagel because he's too outspoken - I believe there is real potential for Nebraska's Senators to set the agenda for the entire country. And, maybe - just maybe - Nelson and Hagel are starting to see this for themselves.
This may all be circumstantial. Perhaps this alliance is nothing more than the product of one writer's fertile but fevered imagination. But - looking at what we've just seen, regardless of whether or not it actually exists - is there any denying the potential of the Nebraska bloc?
I really don't think so. And the benefits to our state from such a partnership could be downright beyond belief.
Sure, that could mean a lot in the way of bringing home the bacon (i.e. pork-barrel spending), but the real potential lies in exercising influence and exporting Nebraska's own particular brands of common sense and pragmatism to which we so often lay claim.
Well, here we have the opportunity to prove it - perhaps remaking the entire country in the process. Not in our image but certainly to be more reflective of our political character.
Sound crazy? It should. We're Nebraska, for crying out loud. 1.7 million people. A statewide identitiy crisis since the collapse of our college football team. So Republican that we can't possibly be considered a Swing State or even a Bellwether. Still, none of this means that some positively ridiculous levels of influece aren't a distinct possibility.
The problem is that Nelson and Hagel remain very different people, and their animosity might even remain intact. Moreover, there aren't a whole lot of issues on which they currently stand united. But that, in itself, is just one more example of how their working together could set the terms for our national debates. On immigration, on Social Security solvency, on Medicaid reform - these are all issues on which plans by Nelson and Hagel could take front and center...if they were only able to resolve their differences and come to some sort of compromise.
On some of these issues, I'm not at all convinced that I'd like what a Nelson-Hagel teaming might come up with. But, be it in the name of Nebraska's nonpartisan ideal or driven by the media's buzz word mentality towards all things bipartisan, I stand by my estimation that our Senators' potential to do great things and to make big changes really does exist. The Nebraska Bloc could be a reality, though I can't yet honestly assert that it actually is or that it ever shall be.
Which brings me to my final point - after way too much typing and way too long a night. Just days after publishing a letter to the editor from a three-term National Committeewoman of the Nebraska Republican Party defending Chuck Hagel at the expense of every other Republican in Congress, Thursday's World-Herald included a letter from former 2nd District Congressman John Y. McCollister taking a much different approach.
McCollister served three terms of his own in the House from 1971-1977. In that time, he's responsible for giving a young Hagel his start in Washington D.C. while also serving as his political mentor. The two have evidently remained close throughout the years - as evidenced by any number of statements by both men - which makes McCollister's letter so remarkable for its unmistakeable criticism of Hagel.
Regardless of one's view on the Iraq War, the congressional votes setting deadlines for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are a tragic mistake. The president will veto the bill and give Congress a chance to do it right. Unfortunately, the votes will strengthen our enemies and dishearten our soldiers....No matter how vague and without mentioning him by name, there is no room for doubt that McCollister's stunning and stinging rebuke is targeted squarely at Hagel.
I believe that some people disregard the awful consequences of a premature withdrawal and want to end the war, period. Others have a consuming, burning hatred of George W. Bush as their dominant legislative priority. Those who carelessly throw out talk of "impeachment" are of the same stripe.
There is no place for blind hate, however disguised, in any legislative body.
John Y. McCollister, Omaha
Hagel's has been the most prominent voice in the entire country to even mention the possibility of Bush's impeachment. According to McCollister, Hagel's "careless" use of the word speaks to "a consuming, burning hatred" of Bush that has "no place" in Congress.
In essence - looking at these statements - I'd go so far as saying that McCollister has just declared open season on Hagel's Senate seat. Hagel's friend and political mentor just said there's "no place" for him in Congress. If that's not an invitation to another prominent Republican to step-up and challenge Hagel, then I really can't imagine what would qualify as such.
The green light has been given. Gentlemen, start your engines. I still have a hard time seeing a legitimate primary challenge actually happening, but the implications from McCollister's letter are perfectly clear. There's really no mincing his words. They make quite the impression, and I'm sure Hagel got the message loud and clear.
I won't speculate any further what consequences might result. I've personally exhausted one day's editorial page to its breaking point. But, please, share your thoughts. The Freudian dynamics of McCollister vs. Hagel as father and son? The proper extent of Congress' war powers? Whether my theory about "the Nebraska bloc" makes me a Nebraska blockhead? It's all fair game, and we want to hear what you have to say.