April 18, 2014

“Fiscal Cliff” deal splits Nebraska’s Congressional delegation (AUDIO)

The compromise reached to resolve the financial issues that pushed the nation close to the fiscal cliff split the Nebraska Congressional delegation.

While both Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican, and Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, voted in favor of the bill that passed the United States Senate 89-to-9, only one of Nebraska’s three House members voted for the bill; Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican. Republicans Lee Terry and Adrian Smith voted against the measure which passed the House 257-to-167.

Smith tells Nebraska Radio Network he couldn’t vote for a bill that didn’t include spending cuts to help reduce the federal deficit. The deal pushes off the deep, automatic budget cuts, the sequestration as it’s called, for another two months. Smith didn’t favor delay, but didn’t want to cancel the cuts either.

“But, to just cancel the sequestration really would pose problems for the realities that everyone knows exists related to spending,” according to Smith.

Smith says President Obama needs to lead to get federal spending under control.

“And nibbling around the edges will not do it. It will take significant reforms and the sooner we address these issues, the less painful it will be,” Smith says.

Smith says he doesn’t expect one bill to resolve the nation’s spending problems, but thought the deal should have taken a step in that direction.

“There were no spending issues in the bill, whatsoever,” Smith says. “And there are some who are concerned that the bill actually adds to the deficit rather than brings it down.”

Despite such reservations, Smith does like some aspects of the compromise. He says the agreement on the Estate Tax recognizes the impact it has on farm and small business operations. The deal preserves the $5 million exemption on estates. It increases the Estate Tax rate from the current 35% to 40% for estates over that threshold.

Smith says he would have preferred a new, five-year Farm Bill, but says a one-year extension of the current Farm Bill is better than a 30 or 60-day extension as had been suggested by some.

The deal brokered by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky extends the Bush-era tax cuts permanently for families making $450,000 or less and individuals making $400,000 or less. The tax on capital gains and dividends will be set at 15% for those tax brackets as well, rising to 20% for the wealthy.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit will be extended for five years. The Alternative Minimum Tax, created to keep the wealthy from using deductions to avoid paying income taxes, will be indexed to inflation to keep it from encroaching upon less-wealthy Americans.

The Social Security payroll tax, cut by 2% two years ago to get more money into the economy, will rise back to its normal level of 6.2%

Temporary business tax breaks, such as breaks for research and development as well as wind power, will be extended for a year.

A scheduled cut for the Medicare reimbursement to doctors and hospitals will be postponed a year.

Federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed will be extended for another year.

AUDIO: Congressman Adrian Smith talks with Brent Martin about “fiscal cliff” deal. [4 min.]

Sen. Nelson denies “Cornhusker kickback” ended his political career (AUDIO)

Sen. Ben Nelson claims there never was a “Cornhusker kickback” to secure his vote, vital to passage of the federal healthcare overhaul and tells Nebraska Radio Network the controversy surrounding his support for the law had nothing to do with his decision to leave politics.

In an interview with Nebraska Radio Network, Nelson recalls the first time he heard the term “Cornhusker kickback”.

“I wanted to know what it was,” Nelson says, pausing. “I want to know what it was. It didn’t exist and the people who characterized it that way knew it didn’t exist. There wasn’t something in there simply for Nebraska. There was something for all the states.”

Critics of the healthcare law immediately pounced on the deal they claimed Nelson struck with Senate leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, to secure his crucial 60th vote. The deal secured 100% federal funding of Medicaid expansion in Nebraska indefinitely. Nelson’s office claimed it merely served as a placeholder that gave way to the eventual language securing 100% funding for the first three years to all states to expand Medicaid coverage. The federal funding will drop to 90% eventually.

The tag stuck, though, as critics used it and other such deals struck to secure the votes needed for passage in the United States Senate to pour scorn on the process used to pass President Obama’s signature domestic measure.

Nelson, a Democrat, blames $8 million in television ads critical of his vote for turning Nebraskans against the federal healthcare bill and his role in its passage.

“When the well is poisoned, it’s not surprising that people get poisoned when they drink from the well,” Nelson says. “There was so much coming out, that people were poisoned by it.”

Nelson says the Supreme Court vindicated his stance. Though the court upheld the law, it ruled the federal government couldn’t force states to expand Medicaid.

He denies the controversy kept him from seeking a third term, claiming internal polling indicated he would win.

“So, you know there were people who didn’t like the vote, but they would still vote for me.”

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1 min.]

AUDIO: Sen. Ben Nelson discusses the “Cornhusker kickback” [7:30]

Sen. Johanns praises Sen. Nelson as Nelson prepares to leave office (AUDIO)

Sen. Mike Johanns praises Sen. Ben Nelson as Nelson leaves public office.

Nelson will leave the United States Senate and return to private life after his term ends.

Johanns, a Republican, says he and Nelson, a Democrat, had a good relationship throughout their political careers.

“So, I thank Sen. Nelson for his work. I thank him for the direction he gave to his staff, same direction I gave to my staff, which is ‘work together,’” Johanns tells Nebraska reporters during a conference call. “We’ve had an outstanding working relationship and I appreciate his efforts and I do appreciate the close working relationship.”

Johanns says he has worked with Nelson for years, not just in the Senate. He praises Nelson for his work on behalf of Nebraska.

“And I wish him and Diane and his family the very, very best as he thinks about the next stages in life and I look forward to seeing them both in the future,” Johanns says.

Nelson leaves public life after his term as United States Senator ends. He served two terms as governor and two terms as US Senator.

AUDIO: Sen. Mike Johanns praises Sen. Ben Nelson as Nelson prepares to leave public office. [1 min.]

Fiscal cliff deal reached, includes extension of current Farm Bill

Sen. Mike Johanns and Sen. Ben Nelson voted in favor of a last minute deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff that actually missed the last minute.

While the country celebrated a new year, the Senate in Washington approved a deal brokered by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The Senate approved the compromise 89-8 just before 2 o’clock this morning, about two hours passed the midnight deadline lawmakers had been rushing to meet.

“This agreement isn’t my ideal option, but I firmly believe going over the cliff isn’t an option at all,” Johanns said in a written statement released by his office. “I would have preferred stopping a tax hike for every American, significantly reducing spending and strengthening Social Security and Medicare. This package, however, is a vast improvement from the Administration’s original proposal and no one can overlook the fact it protects an estimated 99 percent of Americans from being hit with the largest tax hike in our nation’s history.”

The package now heads to the House, which has been less receptive to tax hikes. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio whose negotiations with President Obama earlier failed to reach a compromise, pledged to bring it to a vote in the coming days.

Johanns noted that any deal passed by Congress and signed by the president will have to implement the new tax rates retroactively since lawmakers missed the December 31st deadline.

Johanns’ office reports the deal extends the current federal income tax rates for families earning less than $450,000 a year. It makes permanent current capital gains and dividends rates for those making less than $450,000 and raises the rate to 20% for those making more. Child care and tuition tax deductions would be extended for five years. The estate tax exemption threshold would remain at $5 million, with the tax rate on estates rising from 35% to 40% above the $5 million mark.

The compromise would fix a quirk in the Alternative Minimum Tax which was originally designed to prevent wealthy Americans from avoiding income taxes through deductions. Congress failed to attach a provision to adjust the AMT for inflation and the Congressional Research Office estimated that without adjustment, the tax would affect as many as 135,000 Nebraskans, making as little as $33,750 a year.

The deep, automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, would be delayed for two months. The deal also prevents Medicare reimbursements to doctors and hospitals from being cut.

The Farm Bill, approved in 2008, would be extended through the fiscal year, under the agreement. The Senate approved a new Farm Bill as did the House Agriculture Committee, but the bill never came before the full House for debate. Some farm state lawmakers attempted to tie the legislation to the fiscal cliff talks, but that effort failed.

Johanns’ office stated that without the agreement, American taxpayers would face a tax increase of almost $536 billion a year, the steepest single tax increase in American history. Most of the tax cuts came during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Sen. Nelson says leaving office is bittersweet (AUDIO)

Sen. Ben Nelson admits to a bit of melancholy and says his exit from public life is bittersweet.

In an interview with Nebraska Radio Network, Sen. Nelson says he’ll miss his staff, his colleagues and the Senate in general, but he won’t miss a sometimes toxic atmosphere overshadowing Congress.

Nelson says he’d like to do away with the political aisle.

“The aisle is bigger, deeper and taller in these last several years than it was when I got there,” Nelson tells us.

Nelson, a Democrat, says members now focus on the next election rather than fulfilling the promises of the last.

“And, as long as it continues to be about politics and partisanship and it’s no longer as much about the people as it needs to be, we’re going to have the inability to get things done and to merge together,” according to Nelson.

Nelson says that while the structure of the United States House fosters partisanship, the Senate avoided partisanship until lately. Nelson blames the special interest groups that fund the Super PACs (Political Action Committees) that funnel tremendous amounts of money into campaigns without accountability. He suggests Super PACs be forced to comply with campaign finance disclosure laws.

He considers his time on the Senate Armed Services Committee extremely important as well as his work on the Agriculture Committee.

Nelson says he will continue to split time between Washington and Nebraska, but now will spend more time in Nebraska than Washington. He says leaves public service to spend more time with his family and to check off items from his “bucket list”.

Nelson won election as governor in 1990 and re-election in 1994. He won election to the United States Senate in 2000 and re-election in 2006.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1 min.]

AUDIO: Brent Martin interviews Sen. Ben Nelson about leaving public office. [30 min.]