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The Jokester

In May 2001, one day after the news broke that Senator Jim Jeffords was leaving the Republican Party, rumors began to spread that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson was contemplating a move in the opposite direction. The rumors made a certain amount of sense. Nelson was a conservative Democrat and personal friend of President Bush. And Republicans were desperate to reclaim the majority they had just lost. For Nelson, the circumstances were perfect ... to prank-call his press secretary.

He recruited the friend of one of his legislative aides to pretend to be a journalist, asking her to alter her voice to mask her identity. Nelson and his co-conspirators stood outside the Senate floor and huddled over the phone. "I just ran into Senator Nelson. He said he was going in to see Senator Lott and had agreed to switch parties," the caller told Nelson's speechless spokesman--who didn't stop stuttering in disbelief until he heard the senator crowing with laughter in the background.

Nelson--68 years old, a bit short, broad-shouldered with bushy eyebrows and a coiffed mane of gray hair--is the Ashton Kutcher of the Senate: He simply loves pulling pranks. "They never know when I'm going to strike," Nelson tells me proudly in his slow, grandfatherly Midwestern drawl. "The key is to play to their worst fears at the moment ... what keeps them awake at night. ... I'm selective as to my victims." Nelson has been playing practical jokes since childhood, when his antics included leaving a rubber mouse in his mother's sugar bowl. Decades later, as Nebraska's governor, his fondness for pranks landed him on a 1997 episode of "Candid Camera." Pulling aside random staffers and passersby, he told them he was thinking of renaming the state "Zenmar"--or possibly "Quentron"--and was barely able to contain himself as he watched their flabbergasted reactions caught on tape. "They thought that I had lost my mind," Nelson recalls.

Since arriving in Washington, he has pranked his Democratic colleagues with relish, frequently using his red-state roots as ammunition. While waiting to be sworn into Congress in 2001, Nelson was standing outside the Senate chamber with other freshman legislators, who were all clutching Bibles they had brought for the ceremony. Seconds before Hillary Clinton's name was called, Nelson approached her to ask which Bible passage she had chosen. "She whisked her head around in a panic--only to see Nelson laughing hysterically, because, of course, they aren't supposed to pick out a Bible verse. It's just there to place their hand on when they're sworn in," recounts Michaela Sims, a former Nelson aide.

Delighted with the results of this prank, Nelson played the same Bible-verse trick on Jon Corzine and Claire McCaskill when they were being sworn in. And, in 2005, minutes before Bush's State of the Union address, Nelson told Harry Reid and several other Democrats in the cloakroom that he had already read it, in advance of all the other senators. "They all got whiplash--they knew I had some proximity to the administration and probably believed I got favored treatment," he tells me. "The looks on their faces made it all worthwhile." Nelson has even coined a special term for his jokes, Sims says. "He calls them 'gotchas.'"

Lately, Nelson has found himself in the spotlight for antics of a different kind. During the first six months of the Obama administration, he has emerged as Capitol Hill's foremost apostate Democrat. The role was arguably years in the making. Days after the Nebraskan arrived on Capitol Hill in 2001, Bush sent White House aides to convince him to back sweeping tax cuts. "First they got Zell Miller," Sims tells me. "Then they came to get him." In the end, Nelson would become one of only a handful of Democrats to support the bill, helping to assure its passage. Two years later, he would sign on to another round of Bush tax cuts. In 2005, according to National Journal, Nelson not only was the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, but also had a more conservative voting record than five Senate Republicans. During Bush's second term, he would refuse to join Democrats in opposing the privatization of Social Security, while accepting Bush's invitations to watch DVDs at the White House and ride across the country on Air Force One.

But, since Obama was sworn in, Nelson's transgressions seem to have grown more dramatic. He voted against Obama's budget (he was one of only two Democrats to do so), criticized Obama's choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel, and vocally opposed closing Guantanamo. He also played a key role in helping to water down the administration's stimulus bill (although, to hear him tell it, he was actually saving the measure by making it palatable to moderate Republicans). And, on health care, he has assailed the public option, a central pillar of Obama's proposal.

All this triangulating has not endeared him to liberals. "When Ben Nelson reaches across the aisle, as he inevitably does, he can put together a bipartisan bloc," says one veteran lobbyist who's worked with Nelson's staff. "What that says is, 'I have a bloc of votes. You will come to me, and you will negotiate with me.' ... It makes for very frustrating dynamics in the caucus." Still, Democrats on the Hill have largely been willing to swallow their frustration because they believe Nelson doesn't have a choice. McCain won Nebraska last year by 15 points, and a liberal Democrat simply wouldn't be able to hold onto the seat. "It's a very competitive state, and he feels like he's gotta do what he's gotta do," says one senior Democratic aide. "We feel his pain, and we understand politically his challenges," reasons another. "Ben Nelson is our friend. What do we want--a Republican senator from Nebraska who's never with us?"

That Democrats would be so indulgent makes a certain amount of political sense. More baffling are Nelson's own calculations. If he is really so determined to safeguard his political future in Nebraska, why doesn't he just become a Republican? The GOP would be happy to have him, since one more seat would take away the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority. And his political philosophy would seem to place him comfortably within the Republican fold.

Yet, oddly, Nelson seems to have no desire to be anything other than a Democrat. Back in 2004, Karl Rove offered him the post of agriculture secretary, but Nelson declined. "I don't think I'm persona non grata among the [Democratic] party regulars," he says. "I'm not a lone wolf." Unlike Zell Miller, the infamously dour conservative who shunned his fellow Democrats, Nelson actively ingratiates himself with his colleagues, yukking it up with Barbara Boxer at caucus lunches and regularly appearing at the party's dinners and cocktail hours. Watching him defend his right-leaning positions with a "who me?" grin and a twinkle in his eye, almost as if he's mugging for a hidden camera, it's impossible not to wonder if Ben Nelson likes being a Democrat in part because he loves being a pain in the ass.

Meanwhile, the practical jokes show no sign of letting up. Last year, Nelson snuck into McCaskill's office while she was on the floor for a vote, plastering photos of himself in hunting gear all over the walls. And, when he spots Bill Nelson or Maria Cantwell in the subway between the Capitol and Senate buildings, he tugs on their jackets as the train pulls away, causing them momentary panic as they think they're caught in the door. During a phone call last week, he tells me that he's feeling newly inspired to engineer more mischief. "Now that you've helped me revisit this," he says, "I'm going to get going on it again today."

Suzy Khimm is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.