White House Hopefuls Brush Off Missed Votes

Posted March 7, 2003 at 5:40pm

Democratic presidential hopefuls in Congress acknowledge they’ve been missing votes since hitting the campaign trail but say they will be on deck when their “yea” or “nay” is critical.

At least six Members are vying for the White House in 2004, two in the House and four in the Senate. The demands of mounting a national campaign have kept most Members away from casting votes in their respective chambers, with Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) leading the absentee pack and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) close behind.

Gephardt has made just a handful of votes since the session began. In all, Gephardt has missed 69 percent of the 49 votes taken in the House so far.

“For whom does it matter is the question?” asked one senior House Democratic aide. “For his constituents? Absolutely. As his role as a legislator and a peer among peers in the Democratic Caucus? No.”

Across the Capitol, Kerry missed 23 of 43 votes cast this year, a handful as the result of his prostate cancer surgery in mid-February. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) followed Kerry with 16 missed votes, 14 of which have occurred since his Jan. 31 heart surgery.

“If there is an important vote obviously you have got a responsibility to be here,” Kerry said after Thursday night’s vote. But the Massachusetts Democrat made it clear that campaigning for president will be a top priority for him over the next year, although he vowed it would not interfere with his Senate work.

“Running for president of the United States … is an important responsibility, and I think it is important to campaign,” he said.

Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith said his boss isn’t coming up short in terms of his obligations to Missouri, noting that the House schedule has been rife with largely procedural votes, which “are essentially meaningless.” And, he said, Gephardt can do a lot more for Missouri as president of the United States.

“He’s going to miss votes, he’s running for president,” Smith said.

But Scott Baker, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party, countered: “It seems Mr. Gephardt should commit to his day job before he seeks a promotion. The people of his district deserve better than this.”

The other House Member in the presidential pool is Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who hasn’t missed any votes this year. Kucinich, a progressive anti-war candidate who is a long shot for the nomination, entered the race late last month.

“I was sent to Congress to represent the people of Ohio’s 10th Congressional district. I believe this is a true honor, and that it is my duty to be present to vote. As our nation is on the verge of war, and our economy hurting, now more than ever I believe it is urgent to be present for votes,” Kucinich said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has missed 15 votes, and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) is the only Senate Democrat eyeing the White House whose missed votes are in the single digits.

A spokesman for Graham said the Florida Senator is expected to return from his home state to Capitol Hill this week and is in the early stages of putting together his campaign schedule.

“He is just now getting organized,” said Paul Anderson, Graham’s spokesman. “He is not committed to his schedule, and he plans to be available for votes.”

With Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) publicly voicing support for Miguel Estrada’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, insiders wondered if Graham would also break Democratic ranks to support Estrada during last week’s cloture vote. Republicans needed 60 votes to break the Democratic filibuster, but Democrats defeated the motion 55 to 44. Republicans have a 51 to 49 majority in the Senate.

Anderson said Graham’s aides were monitoring the debate and concluded, “His votes wouldn’t be determinative either way.”

It is still unclear if Graham will support Estrada when he returns.

Graham’s decision not to travel back to Washington for last week’s cloture vote on Estrada underscores the reality that Democrats need only to prevent Republicans from achieving the 60-vote threshold on most issues.

“We are in the minority,” said Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “We don’t need them, [Republicans] need the votes, not us.”

“The most important votes are cloture votes and we don’t need [the Democratic presidential contenders] for that,” said a senior Democratic Senator, who asked not to be named. “If [Republicans] don’t reach 60, it doesn’t matter.

“With respect to cloture votes, which stop bad things from happening, it is not particularly relevant,” the Senator said.

With the exception of votes linked to the outstanding 2003 spending bills, most of the votes in the Senate this year have been on judicial nominations.

In the House, Members have spent much of their time on suspension bills and continuing resolutions, but also have debated human-cloning legislation and welfare reauthorization.

So far, Democratic votes have mattered even less in the House, given Republicans hold a 12-seat advantage and there have been very few narrow votes this year.

Leadership sources indicate, however, that Gephardt will be called to vote if needed.

“The only time it could matter is if we had a really tight vote, and so far we haven’t had that,” said a senior Democratic aide.

The aide added that Gephardt — who doesn’t hold any committee assignments and isn’t seeking re-election — may come back for key votes such as the budget resolution.

“It’s not a big deal,” the staffer said. “Everybody expected it and he was relatively forthcoming that he wasn’t going to be around very much.”

Senate Democrats also will be expected to be present in the upcoming months when the 2004 budget is debated on the floor.

So far, Senate leaders have not spoken to any of the Democrats seeking the White House to emphasize to them the need for their attendance on key votes, Democratic sources said.

“I think it is assumed by everybody you can’t be on the campaign trail when we are involved in the votes on the budget that are critical to key issues that you are out there campaigning on. You can miss bed check votes,” the Democratic Senator said. “You can miss a judge vote on a Friday. Because none of that is relevant, but on key days I think everyone is going to want to be here to cast a key vote.

“Otherwise in Iowa, they would ask them where were you when they missed a key vote on education,” the Senator said.

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers seeking the White House to all but abandon Washington for the campaign trail. Lieberman was rarely seen on Capitol Hill after then-Vice President Al Gore chose the Connecticut Democrat to be his running mate. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sought the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, he was more likely to be found in New Hampshire than in Washington, D.C..

Gephardt stepped down as Democratic leader last fall, and announced plans to run for president earlier this year, with his official kickoff in February.