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Bill Nelson Talks Politics and Policy in Tallahassee

January 18, 2011 - 6:00pm

Three U.S. senators announced in recent days that they plan to retire in 2012 instead of seeking another term. But Florida Democrat Bill Nelson shows no signs of joining his three colleagues -- Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

During an address to reporters and editors at the annual Legislative Planning Session held by the Associated Press Wednesday in Tallahassee, Nelson was asked if he would seek a third term in 2012.

Yes, Nelson replied.

While conceding that he is a target for Republicans based on the 2010 election results, Nelson said he feels confident about his chances.

I think that attitudes will be changing, he said, pointing to an improving economy and Floridians being familiar with his record.

A large field of potential Republican candidates is considering running against Nelson. Senate President Mike Haridopolos and businessman Mike McCalister, who pulled 10 percent in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, have already announced they are running. Other potential Republican candidates include former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan and former House Majority Leader Adam Hasner.

With Nelson saying he is going to run in 2012, the Republicans fired away.

"We look forward to a vigorous debate on Senator Nelsons vote to cut Medicare by $500 billion, his rubber-stamp support for President Obamas failed $787 billion stimulus debacle, and his countless votes to drive our national debt past $14 trillion," said Chris Bond, press secretary of the National Republican Senate Committee. "Again and again, he has put President Obamas reckless big-government agenda over the best interests of Floridians, and the reality is that Florida families and small businesses simply cant afford six more years of Bill Nelson."

Politics dominated Nelsons talk, as the senator weighed in on the need for greater civility in public life, especially in light of the mass shooting earlier this month in Arizona in which U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was wounded.

Nelson pointed to the relationship between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic U.S. House Speaker Tip ONeil as a model of civility, which Nelson said he witnessed closely during the early 1980s when he served in the U.S. House. Nelson singled out how Reagan and ONeil worked on Social Security in 1983 and agreed to take it off the table as an issue in the 1984 presidential election. That saved Social Security well into the middle part of this century, Nelson insisted.

Saying that his relationship with former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez --a Republican who served alongside him representing Florida --had been cordial, Nelson added that he expects to have the same kind of relationship with newly inaugurated Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Nelson also offered his thoughts on President Barack Obamas performance after two years in office.

The president -- and I have made no bones about it -- has made mistakes here in Florida, said Nelson. He pointed to Obamas handling of the Gulf oil spill and the administrations handling of changing the space program as mistakes they made in Florida, though the senator added he blames White House staff more than he does the president for these missteps. Nelson added that he expects the president to pay more attention to Florida in the next two years when, once again, the Sunshine State should be an important battleground in the presidential election.

Nelson also spoke on policy issues, reiterating his opposition to offshore oil drilling, noting there is not much oil off Florida and adding that the states economy relies more on tourism, which could be impacted by drilling. The senator also added that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and military personnel insist that offshore drilling will harm military training operations in the Gulf.

The senator also called for expanded high-speed rail operations in the Sunshine State, arguing that most of the bill is already taken care of.

Ninety percent is already on the table from the federal government, said Nelson. This is one we simply do not want to lose.

Nelson praised current Everglades protection efforts and called for more focus to be paid on reducing the deficit and the national debt. Nelson said he is open to expanding the debt ceiling.

It would be irresponsible not to allow the government to pay its bills, he said. The fact is, we have to do something about the deficit.

Nelson took exception to claims that federal health-care legislation passed last year is undermining the economy.

Its a job creator, Nelson insisted, arguing that the Congressional Budget Office claims the new health care law would save $250 billion in the next 10 years and $1 trillion in the following decade.

Nelson said he opposed a vote led by the new Republican majority in the U.S. House Wednesday to repeal the law. Would I vote to repeal it? No, said Nelson. Can we change it? Yes, and improve it.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859.

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