AWOL From the Capitol
Campaign Schedule Pulls Candidates Away From Jobs in Congress

Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007 11:39 AM

Of all the senators in hot pursuit of their presidential ambitions, none has been AWOL from the Capitol as much as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has missed nearly half the votes this year. But that is about to change.

With Congress about to begin a summer recess, presidential aspirants on Capitol Hill are gearing up for a campaign surge that will keep them on the road for much of the remainder of the year. One of the top-tier candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), has managed to be in Washington for nearly all the roll call votes this year. Yet with crucial primaries and caucuses only six months away, Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will likely make only cameo appearances in Congress after Labor Day, according to colleagues and political operatives. And those like McCain and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) who are trailing badly in the polls and in fundraising will have even less time for official business if they have any hope of moving up in the polls. [View a ranking of the top vote missing candidates at the end of this article.]

With a political calendar so heavily frontloaded that the nominees for both parties could well be decided by the time of the "Super Tuesday" primaries and caucuses next Feb. 5, lawmakers running for the White House no longer have the luxury of getting bogged down this fall in legislative debates about domestic items and spending bills that do not garner national attention.

"There's no physical way to run" from Capitol Hill, said Biden, who is fighting for attention. While committed to being present when the Senate considers a Pentagon authorization bill that could impact future Iraq war policy, Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made it clear he will be gone on the road the rest of the time.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who missed more than 72 percent of the votes during his 2004 campaign, said he has been "surprised by the amount of time" this year's crop of candidates have spent in Washington, particularly Clinton..

Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has missed a scant three percent of the votes. Still, she acknowledged yesterday that her attention to Capitol Hill will likely slip as the presidential caucuses and primaries draw closer.

"I can't predict. I'm going to do the best I can," she said, adding that keeping a senatorial focus was important to her for the first seven months of the campaign. "I've worked hard to keep doing my legislative work, not just my votes, but my committee work as well."

The absentee-lawmaker effect of the "Fast Track" campaign already is being felt in Congress, as four senators and two House members running for president have missed more than 20 percent of roll-call votes this year in their respective chambers. Congressional aides expect those percentages to soar during stretches when the Senate moves to low-wattage items, such as a pair of higher education bills and mental health parity measure -- all of which share the fall agenda with $1 trillion worth of must-pass appropriations bills to fund the federal government.

According to the washingtonpost.com's Congressional Votes Data Base, McCain has missed the most votes in the Senate, 48 percent, followed by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Iowa) with 40 percent of the votes missed, Biden with 25 percent, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) with 24 percent, Obama, 19 percent, and Clinton three percent. In the House, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has led the way in missed votes for a presidential candidate with 27 percent, followed by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), 25 percent, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), 17 percent, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), eight percent.

Until now, it was tough for many of them to justify being away from the Hill, despite the demands of bi-coastal campaigning and fundraising events. From May through late July, congressional battles over Iraq war withdrawal amendments and immigration reform provided the most substantive policy skirmishes so far in the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. The Capitol Hill debates framed the national campaign even for those candidates not in Congress. In nationally televised debates, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) accused Clinton and Obama of failing to provide leadership in a major debate over funding for the Iraq war in May, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), among others, pounded McCain for supporting immigration reform legislation.

Even McCain was compelled to be in Washington last month during the initial effort to passs the Pentagon authorization bill. That was when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) forced a rare round-the-clock debate on mandatory troop withdrawal language. At 4 a.m. July 18, while corn growers in northwest Iowa slept and the night shift at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire eyed closing time, the Senate floor was ground zero in the campaign.

McCain took the floor to lead the defense of President Bush's aggressive approach to the Iraq war. "Make no mistake ... suicide bombers and other threats pose formidable challenges, and other difficulties abound. Nevertheless, there appears to be overall movement in the right direction," the onetime frontrunner for the GOP nomination declared, before yielding a few minutes past 4 o'clock to the Democratic frontrunner so she could argue the exact opposite point.

"The description of the problems that are currently existing in Iraq and in the region by my friend and colleague is not only accurate but, unfortunately, an indictment of the policies of this administration," Clinton replied.

But the collapse of that debate in late July, amid parliamentary procedural gridlock, may have marked a turning point in the presidential contenders interest in congressional proceedings and floor debate. By the end of that week, Clinton was in Des Moines rallying Iowan union workers while McCain bounced between fund-raisers in St. Louis and Texas. McCain has missed 55 percent of the 35 roll call votes in the last three weeks, while Obama has missed 13 of those votes and Dodd 11.

At the committee level, Biden's Foreign Relations panel has held eleven hearings since early July, yet Biden has presided over only two -- including a high-profile meeting that took testimony from U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Corker

The Senate floor will likely become center stage for the campaign just once more in the fall, when the Pentagon reauthorization bill is taken up again in late September. After that candidates may pick and choose various moments to return to the chamber to offer amendments on bills that are the congressional equivalent of political mircotargeting ¿ seeing an opportunity to offer legislation with a chance to sway a narrow swath of voters in a particularly important primary or caucus state.

Aides note that Reid has pledged to bring the farm bill to the Senate floor this fall, giving the senator-candidates a chance to push particular items that might please corn growers in Iowa (the first caucus state) for ethanol production, cotton growers in South Carolina (the first southern primary state) or orange farmers in Florida (largest primary before the Feb. 5 mega-primary). And the majority leader has also vowed to bring a global warming bill to the floor, which is critical to environmental activists in large-delegate states such as California and New York, both of which are part of the Super Tuesday voting.

However, in those debates, the presidential contenders will be supporting actors, not the central players that they were in the Iraq and immigration debates. For the most part, they expect to be on the road, searching for support among primary and caucus voters, not co-sponsors for legislation.

Biden said he has been "straight forward with Delawareans" about his diminished role in the Senate, saying his rule of thumb is not missing critical war votes or anything in which his vote would be "determinative."

"But if it's going to pass 60-40," he said, "it doesn't matter."

VOTE MISSERS IN THE SENATE & HOUSE (Through Aug. 2)


Senator Total Missed Votes % Missed Votes
Sen. John McCain 147 48
Sen. Sam Brownback 123 40
Sen. Joseph Biden 78 25
Sen Christopher Dodd 73 24
Sen. Barack Obama 59 19
Sen. Hillary Clinton 10 3
Representative Total Missed Votes % Missed Votes
Rep. Duncan Hunter 220 27
Rep. Tom Tancredo 203 25
Rep. Ron Paul 139 17
Rep. Dennis Kucinich 61 8

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