Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry abruptly interrupted his campaign yesterday to return to Washington for a Senate vote that, as it happened, never happened.
Kerry decided late Monday to cancel campaign stops in New Mexico scheduled for yesterday and flew back to the capital, arriving at a deserted Reagan National Airport at 2 a.m. The senator from Massachusetts wanted to register his vote in support of an amendment that would have guaranteed federal funding for veterans' health care.
In the end, however, Kerry never got to vote. Republicans declined to bring the Democratic-sponsored amendment to the floor while the candidate was here. So Kerry hung around for a while but then headed back to the campaign trail. Meanwhile, Republicans were mulling what to do.
In between these events came a cascade of blame. Kerry's camp angrily charged that GOP leaders had used procedural maneuvers to shelve the vote in an attempt to disrupt his campaign and deny him an issue he has championed. Republicans shot back that Kerry, who has had long absences from the Senate during his campaign, was using the issue to grandstand.
At one point, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) dismissed Kerry's pleas for a vote, saying, "Senator Kerry, who hadn't been here all year, who's missed 80 percent of all votes, parachutes in for a day and then will be taking off once again."
By the end of the day, it was hard to say who got the better of whom. The GOP maneuvers disrupted Kerry's plans, but may have succeeded in calling attention to Kerry's credentials as a combat veteran and a veterans supporter, both of which have been centerpieces of Kerry's efforts to woo voters. In a brief floor speech late in the day, Kerry said that despite the inaction on the bill, "my support [for veterans] will never wane and my commitment to them will never be diminished."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) had offered the amendment that Kerry and nine veterans service organizations supported. It would mandate annual spending for veterans' medical needs for the next 10 years, including an $8 billion increase next year. The amendment was offered as part of the $447.2 billion defense authorization bill that Congress has been working on for more than a month, and which Republicans are eager to pass.
Frist's comment about Kerry's Senate attendance understates his record. According to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly -- which the Bush campaign pointed reporters to -- Kerry has missed 89 percent of the Senate's votes this year (118 of 132) as of Monday, and 64 percent last year. This included several votes on veterans' health care issues.
Kerry campaign operatives fired back that President Bush, while campaigning for president in 2000 as Texas governor, was out of the state five times longer than he was there during the primaries.
Presidential candidates often ignore their elected duties to pursue higher office, which can become a campaign issue. Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) quit the Senate in 1996 when his campaign schedule became overwhelming. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was rarely seen in the House during his recent run for the presidential nomination. Kerry's absence last week during a vote on an unemployment insurance benefits bill prompted Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) to call on Kerry to quit his Senate seat.
In addition to the veterans issue, Kerry had another good reason to be in Washington yesterday. The Senate had its official photo taken in the chamber, and had Kerry missed it, he would have been the only absentee.