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Nelson Still ‘Livid’ at Hagel for Targeting Aide

When Nebraska Members met Wednesday for the delegation’s weekly constituent breakfast, there was no hint of the feud that has flared up in recent weeks between the Cornhusker State’s two Senators.

Bleary-eyed visitors sipped coffee and listened to each of the five Nebraska Members discuss their work in Congress as well as talk about how the delegation is united on issues of importance to the state.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D) even shook hands in an exchange that helped mask the otherwise bitter feelings that exist between the two former political foes.

But in recent weeks, the chilly relationship between Hagel and Nelson has turned downright frosty, in the wake of a Nebraska businessman’s aborted presidential nomination and accusations by Hagel of disloyalty by a senior Nelson staffer.

Nelson said he remains angry at Hagel for accusing his communications director, David DiMartino, of sabotaging Nebraska businessman Tony Raimondo’s nomination to be the nation’s manufacturing czar by allegedly leaking news of the appointment to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign.

“I am just livid about anybody going after a staff member,” Nelson said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Last month, Kerry’s campaign publicized the news of the nomination before it was officially announced and sought to portray it as a half-hearted act by the White House to try to save U.S. manufacturing jobs. Raimondo headed a company that had laid off workers at around the same time he opened a plant in China to serve that market.

Hagel said he never knew about the nomination and blasted the White House for not informing him about it, and he suggested to reporters that DiMartino, a former Kerry campaign staffer, informed the Democrat’s presidential campaign about the nomination.

Facing criticism from Kerry and questionable support from Hagel, Raimondo withdrew his name for the post even before it was officially announced.

Nelson, a close friend of Raimondo’s, said he is “upset” about the turn of events and hopes that Hagel’s lack of public enthusiasm for Raimondo’s nomination is not the result of any issues he might have with him.

“I would hope that the standard for Nebraska appointments is not whether you like your colleagues,” Nelson said. “The friend of my enemy doesn’t have to become an enemy.”

“It really doesn’t have to be that way and … it certainly is not my standard,” Nelson added.

Hagel refused to discuss his relationship with Nelson when asked about it following Wednesday’s breakfast.

“I tell you what, I don’t want to participate,” he said. “I have already said what I want to say.”

In an interview with the Omaha World-Herald last month, Hagel did speak about Nelson and told the newspaper, “We’re not friends, we’re colleagues. That’s not unusual.”

“The fact is we are of different parties, we believe different things,” Hagel said. “Of course there’s going to be some tension there, but it’s not personal.”

Responding to Hagel’s comments in an interview, Nelson said, “I don’t have a problem” with him.

“He said we are not friends, we are colleagues,” Nelson said. “That is fine with me.”

By all accounts, though, the acrimony that exists between the two men has not hurt the delegation from working together on Nebraska issues.

“They have never made it uncomfortable,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.). “They don’t talk about it and they haven’t shown it in the times we have been together.”

Terry said he doesn’t think DiMartino leaked Raimondo’s name to the Kerry campaign and also believes Hagel’s claim that the White House did not tell him about the pending nomination. Instead, he said fault rests squarely on the shoulders of the White House.

“I blame the White House for not sticking up for Tony,” Terry said.

The animosity between Hagel and Nelson is rooted in the 1996 Senate campaign, when the longshot businessman Hagel defeated then-Gov. Nelson. As the race heated up, each campaign turned negative, creating a schism that still exists today between the two men.

Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) said it was not only campaign aides but also the candidates themselves who publicly criticized each other during the 1996 race.

“That election has left some hard feelings, no doubt,” Bereuter said.

“It is understandable,” he added, speaking about the tension between the two Senators. “I suppose there was some resentment.”

But Bereuter, who is resigning from office on Sept. 1, said the weekly breakfast “has reduced friction” within the delegation and helps the Nebraska Members keep in sync on state issues.

“It is one of the things that has kept our delegation working together,” Bereuter said.

While there is bitterness between the two Nebraska Senators, it has not reached the level of mutual hatred displayed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) for one another.

Unlike the legendary New Jersey feud, the ill will between the two Nebraskans is rarely displayed in public — save for last month’s World-Herald article, occasional jabs delivered by Hagel at Nelson to Nebraska reporters and sniping between their staffs.

But the circumstances surrounding Raimondo “may signal a fundamental change” in the two Senator’s relationship, said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

“This has all the makings of the kind of instance that might put a serious damper on the relationship,” Hibbing said. “I think Nebraskans would be upset if they perceived the two Senators had a long-running squabble.”

Nelson said he has no plans to speak to Hagel about the situation and is prepared to put the issue to rest.

“I think it is something that we just let go at the present time, because it almost just speaks for itself,” Nelson said. “We have to move beyond it. We have got to do what is best for Nebraska.”

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