By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007
Such are the perils of running for president as a senator. The two front-runners for the 2008 Democratic nomination are newcomers to the chamber. But in the two years that Clinton and Obama have overlapped, they have taken opposite sides at least 40 times. That's a lot of material to mine, and even misrepresent.
Of the eight senators pondering presidential runs, Clinton (N.Y.), who is completing her first Senate term, and Obama (Ill.), sworn in two years ago, have the briefest voting histories. The Senate has held 645 roll-call votes during their shared tenure, and more than 90 percent of the time the two senators stood with other Democrats. They opposed John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination as chief justice, supported increased funding for embryonic stem cell research and backed the same nonbinding measure that urged President Bush to plan for a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq.
But other votes reveal important differences between the Democratic rivals that distinguish them as they prepare to launch their anticipated candidacies. The areas of dispute include energy policy, congressional ethics and budget priorities, relations with Cuba, gun ownership, and whether a senator can hold a second job.
In corn-growing Iowa, the first stop in the presidential nominating process, Clinton will have to explain the ethanol vote she cast on June 15, 2005. The senator recently softened her stance, but she is on record opposing a large federal boost for the grain-based fuel.
And Obama voted to increase taxes when he opposed a package of business breaks that included the extension of middle-class provisions. Clinton voted for the tax bill -- before she voted against it, as did Obama, in the legislation's final form.
As Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) discovered in previous campaigns, the Congressional Record is a minefield for White House contenders, a catalogue of provincial concerns, convoluted logic and compromised principles.
"A senator is called upon to vote on almost everything," said former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who recently decided against a 2008 bid. Legislative records become "an inviting target for any political opponent," he said, because so few votes speak for themselves, much less reflect a lawmaker's true ideals. The Senate's unofficial motto: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That's hard to explain in a debate, Daschle noted.
One of the sharpest substantive divides is over ethanol, an issue of particular potency in Iowa. The vote in question was an effort to block a proposed amendment to the 2005 energy bill that would have established an ethanol mandate for refineries. "If there were ever an onerous, anti-competitive, anti-free-market provision, this is it," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who led the effort and who warned that non-farming states could face spikes in gasoline prices because of supply limitations. Clinton at the time was campaigning for reelection and was one of 28 senators to support her colleague's failed bid.
At the time, New York had no ethanol industry. Iowa has more ethanol plants than any other state. "If someone voted or has a position against ethanol, it will be used by their opponents and it will be another issue they need to overcome" with voters in the Iowa caucuses, said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University.
Over the past year, Clinton has warmed to ethanol. Buffalo has decided to build a big ethanol plant, making the issue a home-state concern. In May, Clinton said current ethanol production is "a long way from helping us deal with our gas problems" and added: "We need to be moving on a much faster track."
Obama voted for the ethanol mandate. "As a senator from a corn-growing state, Obama will have no problem on the ethanol issue and can tout his credentials on this score with a clear conscience," said Peverill Squire, who teaches politics at the University of Iowa.
The two Democrats differed on other energy-related issues. In August, Clinton supported a bill to expand oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, while Obama voted against it. During the 2005 energy debate, Obama backed an increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, which Clinton opposed. Clinton voted against the energy bill itself because it was stuffed with oil industry incentives. But Obama supported the legislation because it included language that would double ethanol demand by 2012.
Another fault line is spending. Obama sided with fiscal conservatives on several high-profile measures to strip funding for pet projects, including a widely criticized Pentagon travel system and the relocation of a railroad line along the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was part of a Hurricane Katrina redevelopment project. Clinton voted in favor of the projects.
One budget-related vote with broader political implications would have stripped funding for TV Marti, which beams television programming to Cuba, though the Cuban government jams the signal. Critics in Congress complain that the United States has spent almost $200 million on the failed effort and have targeted the program year after year.
Obama twice voted to cut off TV Marti funding, while Clinton supported maintaining it. Those votes will have resonance in Florida, which is a key primary state and may reschedule its 2008 primary date from March to February.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the senator's opposition to TV Marti was primarily about cost. But within Florida's large Cuban exile population, one of the most powerful voting blocs in the state, Clinton's and Obama's stances ally them with distinct groups: the older hard-liners and a younger, more progressive group of second-generation Cuban Americans and more recent immigrants whose numbers are growing. Clinton "is going with the status quo," said Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster who specializes in Hispanic voters. Obama, he said, "is with the position of change."
The senators differed on a July 13 vote that would prohibit the confiscation of legally held guns during natural disasters -- a response to seizures by law enforcement officials in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina. Obama voted to ban confiscations; Clinton was one of 16 senators opposing the restrictions.
In late 2005, Obama allied with Republicans to support creating an exception to Senate rules to allow Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to continue practicing medicine on a not-for-profit basis. Clinton opposed the change, an aide explained, because she believes that senators should not have a second source of income. Gibbs said that Obama, as an author of two best-selling books, was sympathetic to Coburn's request.
In several instances, Clinton and Obama voted against measures that they supported in principle, because the bills were not strong enough. Clinton opposed a restructuring plan for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that Obama and 86 other senators backed, because it did not restore the Cabinet-level status that FEMA had attained under President Bill Clinton, her husband. One of Obama's chief interests in the Senate has been ethics reform, but he was one of eight senators to oppose a bill aimed at tightening lobbyist rules because it was not strong enough. Clinton supported the initiative.
"You're voting for so many things that can be misconstrued," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and former campaign adviser to presidential candidates Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a House member for nearly 30 years, and Kerry, a four-term senator. "It's great if you're the opposition."