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Both Obama And Clinton Embellish Their Roles

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 24, 2008; Page A01

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.

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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.

"I want to cite Lindsey Graham, Sam Brownback, Mel Martinez, Ken Salazar, myself, Dick Durbin, Joe Lieberman . . . who've actually had to wake up early to try to hammer this stuff out," he said.

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."


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