By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 24, 2008
After weeks of arduous negotiations, on April 6, 2006, a bipartisan group of senators burst out of the "President's Room," just off the Senate chamber, with a deal on new immigration policy.
As the half-dozen senators -- including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- headed to announce their plan, they met Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who made a request common when Capitol Hill news conferences are in the offing: "Hey, guys, can I come along?" And when Obama went before the microphones, he was generous with his list of senators to congratulate -- a list that included himself.
To Senate staff members, who had been arriving for 7 a.m. negotiating sessions for weeks, it was a galling moment. Those morning sessions had attracted just three to four senators a side, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) recalled, each deeply involved in the issue. Obama was not one of them. But in a presidential contest involving three sitting senators, embellishment of legislative records may be an inevitability, Specter said with a shrug.
Unlike governors, business leaders or vice presidents, senators -- the last to win the presidency was John F. Kennedy in 1960 -- are not executives. They cannot be held to account for the state of their states, their companies or their administrations. What they do have is the mark they leave on the nation's laws -- and in Obama's brief three-year tenure, as well as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's seven-year hitch, those marks are far from indelible.
"It's not an unusual matter for senators to take a little extra credit," Specter said.
Both Obama and Clinton have tried to make the most of it, and Clinton has attempted to bolster her Senate r¿sum¿ with her less-than-transparent track record as first lady. The release Wednesday of more than 11,000 pages of documents from Clinton's years in the White House sent reporters and political opponents scrambling for evidence that might contradict her lofty assessment of her performance in those years.
The Obama campaign pounced on the documents, using them to argue that the senator from New York had understated her role in securing the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and overstated her roles in foreign policy decisions and passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act early in her husband's administration.
With colleagues in Congress quick to claim credit where it is due, word moves quickly when undue credit is claimed.
"If it happens once or twice, you let it go," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), an Obama supporter. "If it becomes the mantra, then you go, 'Wait a minute.' "
Immigration is a case in point for Obama, but not the only one. In 2007, after the first comprehensive immigration bill had died, the senators were back at it, and again, Obama was notably absent, staffers and senators said. At one meeting, three key negotiators recalled, he entered late and raised a number of questions about the bill's employment verification system. Kennedy and Specter both rebuked him, saying that the issue had already been resolved and that he was coming late to the discussion. Kennedy dressed him down, according to witnesses, and Obama left shortly thereafter.
"Senator Obama came in late, brought up issues that had been hashed and rehashed," Specter recalled. "He didn't stay long."
Just this week, as the financial markets were roiling in the wake of the Bear Stearns collapse, Obama made another claim that was greeted with disbelief in some corners of Capitol Hill. On March 13, Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, unveiled legislative proposals to allow the Federal Housing Administration to guarantee new loans from banks willing to help homeowners in or approaching foreclosure. Obama and Clinton were in Washington for a day-long round of budget voting, but neither appeared at the housing news conference.
Yet Obama on Monday appeared to seek top billing on Dodd's proposal.
"At this moment, we must come together and act to address the housing crisis that set this downturn in motion and continues to eat away at the public's confidence in the market," Obama said. "We should pass the legislation I put forward with my colleague Chris Dodd to create meaningful incentives for lenders to buy or refinance existing mortgages so that Americans facing foreclosure can keep their homes."
Dodd did say that Obama supported the bill, as does Clinton. But he could not offer pride of authorship to the candidate he wants to see in the White House next year.
"I've talked to him about it at some length," Dodd said. "When Senator Obama was there for that full day of voting, we had long conversations about it. He had excellent questions and decided to support it."
Clinton also has her share of colleagues only too willing scrutinize her claims. Her campaign Web site describes Clinton's "successful effort to create" the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program during her husband's tenure in the White House, and she has placed herself in the middle of major international events, including the Northern Ireland peace process and the Balkan conflict.
But prominent Democratic senators, Irish historians and even Sinbad the comedian, who accompanied Clinton to Kosovo, are challenging some of her assertions.
During months of SCHIP negotiations in 1997, her name rarely surfaced in news accounts. Clinton never testified before Congress or held a news conference on the bill. When Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the lead GOP negotiator of the children's health bill, heard reports that Clinton was depicting herself as SCHIP's main advocate, "I had to blink a few times," he said. Hatch said he doesn't recall a single conversation with Clinton about SCHIP, even a mention of her name. "If she was involved, I didn't know about it," he said.
"You know how she says, 'I started SCHIP'? Well, so did I," joked Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), one of the Democrats who pushed the bill across the finish line along with Kennedy. Both have endorsed Obama.
Some Clinton insiders also are uncomfortable with some of her assertions. "I don't really like the way she talks about her role in SCHIP," conceded one former Clinton administration official, who supports the first lady's candidacy, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to express his views candidly. "She doesn't say it right. What she should say is 'I was the driving force in the administration.' That's pretty big, and it's all true."
Obama has left discussion of SCHIP authorship to his allies. But his campaign has launched a broad challenge to Clinton's international bona fides.
In a memo last week, senior Obama adviser Gregory B. Craig, President Bill Clinton's lawyer during his impeachment proceedings, disputed a series of Clinton foreign policy claims. "When your entire campaign is based upon a claim of experience, it is important that you have experience to support that claim," Craig wrote.
But it may be SCHIP that presents the biggest question marks for her. The issue combines Clinton's twin passions for health care and children's causes, and Clinton talks of it like a proud parent. Speaking to General Motors workers last month, Clinton said: "If you want universal health care, you have to take on the insurance companies -- that's exactly what I did as first lady. And when we weren't successful, I kept on fighting until we got health care for 6 million children."
Last fall, Kennedy said SCHIP "wouldn't be in existence" without Clinton's support inside the White House. But when her rhetoric on the campaign trail started to filter back to the Capitol, the veteran legislator became stingier with his praise.
"At the last hour, the administration supported it, and she was part of the administration, so I suppose she could say she supported it at the time," Kennedy said.
Chris Jennings, health policy coordinator in the Clinton White House, offers a different account. He recalled discussing an SCHIP-like program with the first lady even as her universal plan was unraveling. Jennings said Clinton pressed her husband to include children's health coverage in the 1997 State of the Union address and fiscal 1998 budget request.
But context is key, Jennings added. Barely two years had passed since the collapse of the universal health-care idea, and Clinton was still nursing deep political wounds. "She low-keyed her exposure, but that was on purpose," Jennings said. "Her feeling was 'I know my role, I'm going to be quiet, but I'm not going to go away.' "