Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) traveled to the conservative Heritage Institute on Wednesday to make the case once again that Congress should pass a full extension of the Bush tax cuts, at least until the economy turns around.
This is nothing new, even if the setting for the declaration was a bit off for a Democrat. Nelson voted for the Bush tax cuts in the first place and has been a leading skeptic of President Obama's plan to extend them only for those earning less than $250,000.
What stood out in the address was how the Nebraska Democrat tried to carve out a role as a Democratic emissary to the conservative crowd. Nelson told the crowd, according to an advance copy of his remarks, that he had written Obama recently encouraging him to host a bipartisan, bicameral summit on taxes, spending and the deficit.
"I suggested holding a private discussion, free of posturing and playing to the cameras, perhaps at Camp David," Nelson said. "If that setting could lead to the Camp David accords, why not the Camp David agreements?"
The senator also attempted to mute the conservative critique that Obama is spending the country into historic deficits. Defending both the Troubled Asset Relief Program (bank bailout) and the stimulus, he reminded the audience that one-third of the latter included the very tax cuts that they worship.
"It's interesting that when one side of the political aisle supplies tax cuts, they tout them as reducing the burden on taxpayers. But when the other side of the political aisle supplies tax cuts... they're labeled as deficit spending," Nelson said. "To me, a tax cut is a tax cut. They save people money they use to promote economic activity, from the ground up. The Bush tax cuts and the Obama tax cuts are both... tax cuts."
This is comfortable terrain for Nelson to navigate. During health care reform, he wrapped the veneer bipartisanship around his opposition to the public plan. In political terms, the perceived bridge-building gives the senator more leverage -- though sometimes, as with the case with the sweetheart deal he secured for Nebraska in the health care reform package, it can backfire.
What specific compromise Nelson is hoping to broker in the tax cut debate is unknown, in part because he declined to offer specifics. "I favor extending all of the expiring tax cuts for a period of time, at least until the economy shows stronger signs of recovery," he said. He also seemed to recognize how easily critics would poke at the idea of Congress hosting a fiscal summit at the same time that lawmakers pass a budget-busting tax cut extension.
"I hate deficit spending, but some matters are so urgent that they can't wait," he said. "Such was the case with the Recovery Act and TARP, and I believe the same holds true about the tax cuts."
But by drawing a line in the sand with respect to what he can't support, making a public demonstration of his opposition at a conservative think tank and calling for a Camp David summit on fiscal discipline, Nelson has once again made a play to commandeer the spotlight. And with the current procedural dilemmas in the Senate -- where 60 votes are needed for pretty much everything -- the likelihood is that the spotlight will come his way.