Politics & Government

Those crazy senators from Missouri and Nebraska

WASHINGTON — Puck wears a power suit.

An unrepentant prankster, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., once convinced some of Nebraska’s good citizens that he wanted to change the name of the state.

That was when he was governor. Now in Washington, he has a whole new crowd on which to pull his "gotchas."

Which brings us to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has been "punk’d" and has "punk’d" back.

It started on Jan. 4, 2007, swearing-in day for the Senate, and MCaskill's first day as a senator.

"I'm sitting next to him with my Bible waiting to get sworn in, obviously stressed and nervous," she recalled.

She'd missed freshman orientation a few weeks before. Nelson knew this. So he innocently asked:

"What Scripture are you going to read?"

McCaskill froze:

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well, you know you're supposed to read a Bible verse when you take the oath," Nelson said.

Panic. The aide who briefed her never said a word about Bible verses.

Nelson let her fret for another moment or two, then relented. He'd done the same to Hillary Clinton years ago.

Revenge was the only answer.

She was patient. Her moment came more than a year later, during the heat of the presidential primaries.

McCaskill, a big supporter of Sen. Barack Obama, walked into the Senate cloakroom one day, saw Nelson and said, "Can you believe it?"

"What? What are you talking about?" Nelson replied.

"You haven’t heard?" she replied incredulously.

"Heard about what?"

"That (blank) endorsed Obama!"

Such is the delicate balance of life in the Senate that neither Nelson nor McCaskill will allow us to say which Republican colleague McCaskill named. Trust us, it's not important. But suffice to say, it shocked Nelson. We return to our story:

"I knew this would happen!" he blurted and then started punching cell phone buttons.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a witness, was amused. "How long are you going to let this go on?" she asked.

"Oh, it's too soon right now," McCaskill replied.

The fuming Nebraskan reached his chief of staff. What's the scoop?

What's the date? he said.

April 1.

The game was on.

McCaskill and Nelson are neighbors, sharing not only a party and a border, but also a wall between Senate offices.

One Monday a few weeks ago, McCaskill returned after a weekend in Missouri. A large, scarlet University of Nebraska banner hung outside her Senate office door.

Inside was worse. Every photograph in her personal office had been taped over with a picture of her Cornhusker colleague: Nelson in hunting gear, Nelson standing by a dead animal, Nelson in a car decorated as a stalk of corn.

In her desk, her bathroom; even in her refrigerator. More Nelson.

"No stone unturned," he said. "I just wish I could have seen the look on her face when she saw the Nebraska banner."

Had to be an inside job, but the staff has clammed up.

"Now we’re in a war of escalation," she said.

Anything can happen. Whoopee cushions in hearing chairs?

Nelson is on alert, "ducking all the time. I don’t know what's coming my way."

McCaskill: "I’m working on it."