Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., questions William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Russell Senate Office Building on Feb. 24, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)
LINCOLN — Ben Sasse told Nebraskans when he first ran for office in 2013 that he would not be a Senate lifer. But the two-term U.S. senator did not expect to leave so soon, he said Wednesday.
The former president of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, said he was intrigued when the University of Florida started pursuing him for its presidency.
He thought he might one day leave the Senate to run a private equity firm investing in the technologies that he and others who study the “future of work” expect could lead the next industrial revolution.
But Florida, he said, offered him a chance to help steer the university and young people through the major disruptions to jobs coming from artificial intelligence and related technologies.
Today’s students will be less likely to work in the same sectors they start their careers in than previous generations, he said, and adults must prepare them to adapt to this change.
“We’re going to have the opportunity to do some of that disruption … just on the platform of an excellent institution,” Sasse said. “So it ultimately was just too good of an opportunity to say no to.”
Another factor was a changing family dynamic. Sasse’s wife, Melissa, has spent about 16 years recovering from a brain aneurysm. She has been able over time to regain quality of life and raise their kids, he said.
However, over the past four years, Sasse said, she has started having more consistent seizures. When Melissa had episodes and needed time to recover before, their two daughters were a big help caring for her and for their younger brother.
His daughters are now away at college, however. So the idea of a job that keeps Sasse closer to home and more readily available to help was attractive, he said.
“When these seizures happen now … it critically creates a few days of real turmoil to try to navigate,” he said. “Being able to consolidate — that the family … will mostly be around the same dinner table most nights — it’s an important variable that we considered as well.”
Advice for successor
Gov.-elect Jim Pillen is expected to fill Sasse’s seat this month. Many political observers expect him to choose his top political patron, term-limited Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Sasse, who just finished the second year of his second term, is resigning effective Jan. 8. He said he hopes his successor will learn to look past the Washington, D.C., show.
Too many people in the Senate, he said, are more worried about how they and their actions look on cable news instead of focusing on the big-picture goals that can make a difference.
“I think the people doing this job well are the people who are trying to think 10 and 15 years in the future about what the country needs,” he said. “It turns out, Nebraskans seem pretty satisfied with taking a longer-term perspective, and they don’t really want to respond to short term.”
It’s easy to be distracted, Sasse said, by the 50 or 250 angry calls he might receive after a vote or statement, but he said he learned over time that the calls were often from the same people.
He said it’s vital to focus the work on the 2 million Nebraskans, most of whom aren’t watching 24/7 news. He wants his successor to know that the loudest voices do not represent the broader public.
“There’s almost nobody really watching political infotainment,” Sasse said. “But the people who serve here … act like there’s a giant audience.”
Americans, he said, want to “get to a place where we don’t allow the loudest, angriest people to have such a disproportionate voice.”
The Sasse record
Sasse, during his farewell speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, said the Senate needs to play its traditional role as the cooling center for the passions of the day reflected by the House of Representatives. He pointed to this week’s rare multi-vote fight for House speaker.
On Wednesday, he acknowledged having a shorter list than some of legislative accomplishments. He said he is proudest of his work behind closed doors on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He said he cannot discuss some of his top contributions to national defense legislation because they are included in parts of the National Defense Authorization Act that aren’t made public.
He touted his legislation focusing government agencies and the private sector on the threats posed by cyberattacks on computers, devices, networks, systems, power grids and more.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has criticized Sasse in the past, praised him this week for his work on helping focus Congress and the country on the threat posed by Chinese communist leadership.
Sasse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, worked with McConnell to help shepherd a record number of conservative judges onto the federal courts, including flipping the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sasse, who opposes abortion, faced some heat at Florida for statements he made in support of the more conservative Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
He proposed federal legislation meant to protect babies that survive attempted abortion procedures. He said he remains hopeful that younger generations will turn against abortion.
When he ran in 2013, Sasse told Nebraskans he would work on “the future of war,” “the future of work” and the 1stAmendment. He said he didn’t accomplish what he wanted during his time in Congress, including changes to Obamacare.
Congress wasn’t ready to take on big issues like health care reform.
Trump and GOP base
Sasse secured the most votes of any Nebraskan during his 2020 race, outpolling former President Donald Trump statewide. He also was frequently censured by members of his own party, a result of his testy relationship with Trump and Trump supporters.
Sasse was openly critical of what he has described as Trump’s personal excesses, including his failure to understand the power his words have on eroding support for democratic norms.
Sasse was one of seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump following his second impeachment trial, after supporters of the president stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“There were county meetings with a dozen people at them, and they’d split two versus one, censure me for saying that, you know, marching on the Capitol, beating the crap out of cops with batons and saying you want to hang Mike Pence … was a bad idea,” he said. “A lot of them thought that was … going to be a big deal.
“The broader public from the far right to the center left in Nebraska evidently thought we did a pretty decent job of representing their actual communal views.”
Sasse said he plans to finish his last days in the Senate doing his favorite part of the job, attending classified briefings and reading classified materials as part of the Intelligence Committee.
He and his wife plan to keep their Fremont-area home.
Sasse said he told the athletics director at Florida not to schedule the University of Nebraska in any major sports so he won’t have split loyalties.
Doing so, he joked, would be a “fireable offense.”
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