Bill Nelson started off his August Congressional "vacation" by holding a Town Hall meeting in Pinellas County today. Nelson answered questions for one hour from the over 150 in attendance. One remarkable thing about this event? Nobody asked about Iraq.
The first question Nelson fielded did allude to the Bush administrations trampling of civil rights in the guise of the global war on terror. Nelson professed not to know about a controversial classified Executive Order recently issued by Bush. He did talk about this weekend's FISA vote however. He stressed that what was done was a temporary measure that sunsets in six months. Nelson went on to say that the legislation was meant to protect the warrant requirement for US Persons, but not for foreign sources. Nelson lambasted the "mishandling" of the Terrorist Surveillance Program for the last five years. There was also the chance to bash embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Nelson related that one of the biggest sticking points in the bill was the administrations' insistence that the Attorney General be in charge of certifying compliance for this program. Nelson said this was unacceptable to a bipartisan group of Senators. The solution? Having the Director of National Intelligence share this responsibility.
OK, now we have a man that nobody believes and the man in charge of spying certifying compliance for this spy program. Some compromise. And as the 2008 election will be all that much closer in 6 months, does anybody expect that the Congress will show more backbone then?
The questions next turned to domestic issues. Nelson said that a wholesale reform of health insurance delivery would be coming "down the road". Nelson, a former Florida Insurance Commissioner explained that the principle of insurance - spreading risk over large pools of people - was just not working in health insurance. The reason - health insurance pools are too fragmented. The current system only seems to work, if at all, for very large employers. Nelson did tout the recent passage of the children's health care program (SCHIP). Nelson also said that legislation would be introduced soon to induce health insurers to provide more mental health benefits. In response to a question about support for a breast cancer research program, Nelson related how on his space shuttle flight, his primary experiment was for cancer research. He did this shortly after a very dear friend had died from breast cancer.
Nelson got a couple of questions from local elected officials, who were well represented in the audience. The first came from a Gulfport City Commissioner who asked for help regarding changes in the rules for Community Development Block Grants. Nelson responded that his office would be happy to assist in helping communities obtain the grants, but seemed to miss the impact of the change in rules on these communities. He did take the opportunity to point out how the property tax "reform" in the Florida Legislature has impacted his office. He is now getting deluged with requests for Federal funding from local governments. Seems the local governments are turning to the Federal government for funding projects and programs that were once funded by their own property tax revenues or by the state.
The other question was from St. Petersburg City Council Member Renee Flowers, who also is the President of the Florida League of Cities this year. Flowers asked for Nelson's help in securing adequate funds for affordable housing, including the re-authorization of Hope VI grants. Nelson said that the prospects were grim for passage due to the requirement in the Senate to get 60 votes to move a bill. Nelson said that as long as the administration opposed a funding level, Bush's Republican enablers in the Senate would make sure that the 60 votes would not be forthcoming.
Nelson was asked about the upcoming re authorization of No Child Left Behind. His initial response was that he was in favor of fully funding NCLB, something the Bush Administration has not done. As he continued to talk about NCLB, however, he seemed to be talking himself into some major modifications to the program, if he was to vote for re authorization at all.
When asked about outsourcing of jobs, Nelson responded that there were no simple answers in this complicated, interconnected world. He did say he favored changing the tax code to remove rewards for companies off shoring jobs. He went on to say that in order to remain competitive in a global economy, America's advantage would be its intellectual capital, which all comes back to education.
The final question came from Linda Osmundson, Director of CASA (Community Actions Stops Abuse). She asked for help in increasing the availability of FHA Section 8 vouchers. The availability of these vouchers has all but dried up. CASA has used these vouchers to place battered women in temporary housing as a way stop in helping these dislocated victims find permanent housing. Nelson failed to see the particular significance of this question and referred back to his previous answer about affordable housing funding and the 60 vote roadblock. Seems to me the answer is to elect a bigger Democratic majority and get a Democrat in the White House in 2008.
Nelson closed the meeting by noting that no one had asked him about Iraq. He then proceeded to explain his position on Iraq. Mainly, he supports the Iraq Study Group conclusions that the US should have begun a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a change in the mission of the remaining troops. That changed mission would be to provide training for Iraqi forces; to provide border security and force protection and targeted missions against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Nelson also pointed out the ISG's call for increased diplomatic activity to create a regional solution for Iraq. This allowed him to point out his earlier visit to Syria and the criticism he had received. However, he is getting the last laugh as the administration now seems to be talking more to the Syrians, and they are even talking to the Iranian Ambassador in Baghdad.
Overall, this was a good performance for Nelson. He has been doing Town Hall meetings for 35 years and is very comfortable in this format. Despite my nitpicking above, he answered all questions put to him. He talked about what a privilege it was for him to serve. You got the feeling that he meant it. While I do not always agree with Bill Nelsons' votes on specific issues, he is a trustworthy man of his convictions. As Ronald Reagan said, someone who votes with you 80% of the time is your friend, not your enemy.
Nelson continued his vacation with another Town Hall meeting later in the day in Pasco County. Enjoy your "vacation", Senator Nelson.