Se­na­tor who al­most held out on Clin­ton of­fers ad­vice

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - Paul.kane@wash­post.com

It was 1993, and a for­mer ri­val from the pre­vi­ous year’s cam­paign held the pres­i­dent’s first-term agenda in the bal­ance, serv­ing as the last vote on the am­bi­tious do­mes­tic pol­icy agenda barely six months into of­fice.

The se­na­tor hemmed and hawed, some­times hid­ing out, be­fore fi­nally ris­ing to speak.

“Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, if you are watch­ing now, as I sus­pect you are, I tell you this: I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down your pres­i­dency,” Bob Ker­rey, the Ne­braska Demo­crat, said in early Au­gust as he pro­vided the cru­cial vote to pass Clin­ton’s eco­nomic plan.

Pres­i­dent Trump could learn a lot from how Ker­rey made the fi­nal de­ci­sion to sup­port his party’s pres­i­dent on a ma­jor vote early in his term. It could pro­vide guid­ance on the cur­rent bat­tle to find the 50th vote for the floun­der­ing health-care leg­is­la­tion or the even tougher leg­isla­tive ef­forts to come on taxes and trade.

Trump has strug­gled might­ily with this as­pect of his job.

Rather than ral­ly­ing GOP sen­a­tors around com­mon cause, Trump of­ten uses his Twit­ter feed to talk about Repub­li­cans as if he’s not even a mem­ber of their party. In a highly touted White House meet­ing Wed­nes­day, Trump be­lit­tled three Se­nate Repub­li­can hold­outs, seem­ing to threaten their po­lit­i­cal fu­tures, and he cas­ti­gated an­other, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for mak­ing too many tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances.

“The prob­lem is: He thinks the way to get some­thing done is to start off by in­sult­ing them,” Ker­rey, now work­ing for a Man­hat­tan in­vest­ment bank, said dur­ing a 30-minute tele­phone in­ter­view last week.

Ker­rey, who won the Medal of Honor from his ser­vice dur­ing the Viet­nam War, re­counted how it took an enor­mous pres­sure cam­paign to win him over de­spite his com­plaints that the eco­nomic pro­posal fo­cused too heav­ily on tax in­creases and not enough on spend­ing re­straints. His clos­est Se­nate friends let him know that, if the pro­posal failed, noth­ing bet­ter was wait­ing in the wings on a bi­par­ti­san ap­proach with Repub­li­cans.

One of the cen­tral ten­sions, sim­i­lar to to­day’s Wash­ing­ton clashes, was the feel­ing that an early fail­ure on such a big pro­posal would de­rail the rest of Clin­ton’s first term.

It’s the sort of loy­alty play pres­i­dents have made for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions to re­cal­ci­trant would-be al­lies from the same po­lit­i­cal party, but one Trump is par­tic­u­larly bad at now. His Repub­li­can re­sis­tance comes from a bloc of sen­a­tors who re­fused to en­dorse his pres­i­den­tial bid — in­clud­ing Sens. Su­san Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Rob Port­man (Ohio) — along with Paul, a for­mer GOP pres­i­den­tial pri­mary ri­val.

Trump’s dis­mal pop­u­lar­ity does not help, with last week’s Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News Poll putting his ap­proval rat­ing at 36 per­cent.

But those con­di­tions are not all that dif­fer­ent from what Clin­ton faced in the sum­mer of 1993, when his stum­bling start left him with 43 per­cent of vot­ers ap­prov­ing of his per­for­mance.

But one by one, the hold­outs sided with Clin­ton, and fi­nally the en­tire fate hung on whether Ker­rey would de­liver the 50th vote and al­low the vice pres­i­dent, Al Gore, to break the tie and pass the agenda.

In some ways, Ker­rey serves as a com­pos­ite sketch for to­day’s Repub­li­can hold­outs against Trump and his health-care over­haul. Ker­rey was a first-term se­na­tor in a state drift­ing from his own party, much like Heller, and he was a war hero along the lines of Sen. John McCain (RAriz.), who has also hes­i­tated to em­brace the GOP plan.

Ker­rey had run against Clin­ton in the pre­vi­ous year’s pri­mary, and this had be­come a run­ning un­der­cur­rent in the cov­er­age, as it is now with Paul and Trump.

Ker­rey lost most of a leg in Viet­nam, and news cov­er­age con­trasted his war hero sta­tus with Clin­ton’s ef­forts to avoid the draft. Ker­rey said, then and now, he was not try­ing to sab­o­tage Clin­ton’s pres­i­dency.

More­over, given the tra­jec­tory of Clin­ton’s en­tire two terms, Ker­rey said it is ridicu­lous to see that 1993 pro­posal as a de­fin­i­tive point if it had failed.

“That was an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. That wouldn’t have brought down his pres­i­dency,” he said.

Still, Clin­ton did his best to make Ker­rey be­lieve the fail­ure would sig­nal a col­lapse of his pres­i­dency. “If I don’t get this, I’m just go­ing to go back to Lit­tle Rock,” the for­mer Arkansas gov­er­nor told Ker­rey, ac­cord­ing to the Ne­braskan’s rec­ol­lec­tion.

There, things get con­fus­ing. One his­tor­i­cal ac­count has Ker­rey curs­ing out Clin­ton, but Ker­rey swears it was the other way around. Ker­rey’s ac­count is he made a joke that Lit­tle Rock was an op­tion for Clin­ton, but the pres­i­dent re­sponded with a force­ful curse. And then he hung up. The courtship didn’t end there. As he told The Post’s Dan Balz in an in­ter­view a day af­ter the vote, Ker­rey be­gan as a “solid no,” but White House of­fi­cials kept work­ing him.

And de­spite the clashes with Clin­ton, Ker­rey ap­pre­ci­ated the pres­i­dent’s deep knowl­edge of the pol­icy — quite a con­trast to Trump’s grasp on de­tails.

“He knew it cold. He knows pol­icy back­ward and for­ward,” Ker­rey said of Clin­ton.

When Ker­rey fi­nally de­cided to vote yes — “I just thought that’s the best we could get done” — he wrote his speech and de­cided he needed space.

He went to Union Sta­tion’s now-shut­tered movie the­ater and watched “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” By him­self. “It was just much eas­ier to cast a dif­fi­cult vote then than it is to­day,” he said. “If it was to­day, there would’ve been some­one in the movie the­ater with a phone.”

Ker­rey won a fi­nal con­ces­sion. Clin­ton agreed to ap­point a com­mis­sion to study the longterm cost ef­fects of en­ti­tle­ments. He re­turned home, fought hard and ex­plained why he voted to raise taxes in a state trend­ing Repub­li­can. He won by 10 per­cent­age points.

To those wa­ver­ing sen­a­tors to­day, the for­mer Navy SEAL has very suc­cinct ad­vice on ap­proach­ing big votes.

“Don’t be last, and don’t be afraid,” Ker­rey said. “They’re not fir­ing live rounds.”

“The prob­lem is: He thinks the way to get some­thing done is to start off by in­sult­ing them.” Bob Ker­rey, for­mer Demo­cratic se­na­tor from Ne­braska, on Pres­i­dent Trump

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