Nelson urges bipartisanship in light of Tucson violence

01/11/11 Kate Bradshaw
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The US House of Representatives may have postponed their debate on the proposed repeal of parts of the Affordable Care act in light of Saturday’s violence, but some lawmakers want to go on with business as usual. One of these is US Senator Bill Nelson, who was in Downtown Tampa today for a town hall meeting.

"We never want to get to a place in America where there is a wall that separates the elected representative from the people that they represent."

Senator Nelson said as of yet it’s not common for most lawmakers to take security wherever they go.

"I have been asked by the media as I have done nonstop interviews ever since Saturday afternoon, 'Do I have to take security with me wherever I go?' And the answer to that is 'no', unless there is a threat. Of course, you can imagine in 38 years, we've had a number of threats. When you have a threat you just deal with it and you take certain precautions. But this, in no way, should impede our democracy."

In the audience at the town hall meeting at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce was Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, whom Nelson said was there in part because the two are friends. Nelson said there were also some plain-clothes officers among the two dozen or so people at the meeting. He said he’s been interacting with the press practically nonstop since a gunman opened fire on an event held by US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The attack killed six and injured fourteen, including Giffords, who is in critical condition after being shot in the head. Echoing many of his colleagues, he said the event underscores the need to change the tone of civil discourse.

"Before any of this happened you've heard me say as someone who thinks that civility in the public square is most important and that bipartisanship is essential if we're going to build consensus to run a very large, complicated, and diverse country. When that civil discourse gets so strident or so hostile, then it is inimical to the goals that we're trying to achieve in a representative democracy."

Nelson is a strong advocate of bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill. He has deplored the GOP’s attempts to block bills Democrats propose. In the Senate, this is done by filibuster, which aims to safeguard the voices of minority parties. Nelson said the minority party can even filibuster procedural votes, a practice he wishes to stop.

"You've got a major, controversial piece of legislation. You want to get it to the floor. The majority leader makes a motion to proceed. You go through a filibuster on that? First of all the filibuster starts and it doesn't necessarily mean that they're all out there standing on the floor talking all the time like Jimmy Stewart did in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'. The majority leader then has to file a motion for cloture."

He said it takes two days for a motion for cloture to ripen.

"Now, just on the motion to proceed, you've lost two days of the week and then if you've got 60 votes on the motion to proceed the bill, mandatorily if the opposition insists, there's 30 hours of debate before you ever get to the bill."

Nelson said he hopes to do away with the practice of filibustering on motions to proceed, which would require a yea vote from 67 senators. He said in the strongly partisan climate that has overtaken Washington DC, such strong support is not likely. But Nelson did say he’s confident that at least one of the newly-elected GOP Senators will be open to working with him on a bipartisan basis – that is, newly sworn-in US Senator from Florida Marco Rubio.

"Talk about civility in the public square, that the two senators from Florida need to model that."

Saturday’s massacre may be spurring a call for civility and bipartisanship, but it’s also forcing a debate on one of the most divisive issues in the public sphere – gun control. At the state level, Florida requires background checks for those seeking to purchase handguns. Nelson said it might be a good idea to adopt similar laws for assault weapons.

"The guns that are the assault type weapons, used for killing instead of hunting, there need to be some serious checks. Background checks."

But Nelson would not say whether he’d propose any gun control-related legislation in the near future.

"I've got so many other things that I'm involved in right now I can't answer your question. We'll just have to talk about it in the future."

Today’s town hall meeting was scheduled at the last minute. Senator Nelson said it was arranged so the he could ask questions about a new small business loan program, but also to address Saturday’s events and their aftermath.

Previous WMNF coverage of Bill Nelson

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