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McClatchy Newspapers, Published January 26 2011

Congressman wants Senate Democrats, Republicans to sit together

WASHINGTON - Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson had a Ronald Reagan moment Wednesday in the afterglow of the State of the Union address.

Inspired by the sight, he said, of seeing his Democratic and Republican congressional colleagues sitting together in the House chamber during Tuesday night's address, the two-term senator suggested that the two parties sit scattered on the Senate floor from this point forward.

``So, to paraphrase former President Reagan, whose declaration about the need for unity rings true today in a different context,' Nelson, a Democrat, told reporters Wednesday, ``I hope colleagues will join me and say, 'Get rid of this aisle!' ``

Nelson, of course, was paraphrasing Reagan's famous 1987 exhortation during a speech in West Germany, in which the president implored the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

``I'm going to advocate - if there truly is an interest in working together - that we get rid of the aisle on the Senate floor,' Nelson said. ``We could sit not by party but by state, or by alphabet, or some other way that erases the partisan divide.'

Nelson has frequently positioned himself squarely in the middle of the Senate, often frustrating other Democrats by holding back his support for major legislation. He was the last of his caucus to sign on to the health care overhaul.

He also has good reason to appear as nonpartisan as possible, as he could face a serious threat to his re-election in Nebraska in 2012. State Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning, a Republican, has already said he'll challenge Nelson should he decide to run again.

As part of the Democratic caucus already stung by the retirement announcements of Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Nelson has yet to formally declare he's in.

Democrats have to defend more than 20 Senate seats in 2012, with Nelson one of two who will be seeking victory in a Republican-leaning state. (Jon Tester of Montana is the other.) Democrats in battleground states facing tough contests include Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia.

© 2011, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.