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Lawmakers Miss Votes While Wooing Voters

Democratic presidential candidates make sure to cast key ballots, but they find balancing demands of office and the campaign a challenge.

June 26, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, Sen. John Edwards loudly announced his opposition to legislation that, he warned, could open the door to new offshore oil drilling.

But when a move to block the measure came up in the Senate this month, the North Carolina Democrat was not there. He was in Tennessee, campaigning for president.

Edwards' tally would have made no difference; his side lost by 10 votes. But his absence that day is illustrative of the growing scheduling dilemma facing him and the three other Senate Democrats running for president -- Bob Graham of Florida, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

In a chamber so closely divided between the parties, Democratic Senate leaders are having to constantly keep tabs on whether the candidates will be back from the campaign trail to vote on key legislation. As in Edwards' case, none has missed a vote that would have changed an outcome. All have made a point of being on Capitol Hill when it has been clear they were needed.

Still, the dueling demands on the candidates creates tough choices for them. If they stay in Washington, they may miss critical chances to advance their presidential hopes. But when they're out of town campaigning, they become vulnerable to charges of not doing their job.

The competing forces pose the type of logistical challenge known too well by a parent with kids playing soccer games at the same time on opposite sides of town: how to be in two places at once.

And it is a challenge that has resulted in a candidates' forum set for today in Los Angeles that could lack several of the candidates.

Graham, Kerry and Lieberman had committed to attending the event, sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters. As of late Wednesday, however, some doubt surrounded the travel plans of Graham and Kerry.

A final Senate vote could occur late today on the Medicare reform bill the chamber has been discussing since last week, and aides to the two senators were trying to figure out where their bosses should be: Los Angeles or Washington?

Edwards already had decided to stay in Washington because of the debate on the Medicare bill, which would provide a prescription drug benefit to seniors -- an important voting bloc.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, another of the Democratic presidential contenders, also will miss the forum. A spokeswoman said he had previously scheduled campaign events in New York.

"Environmentalists will note their absence with disappointment and make their choices in the primary accordingly," said Deb Callahan, League of Conservation Voters president.

But Callahan also expressed sympathy for the lawmakers' dilemma. "There is no one-size-fits-all rule for scheduling when it comes to presidential campaigning," she said. "Every day is a balancing act."

As pressures mount on the candidates to take their messages on the road, the juggling act likely will become more difficult.

With the Senate composed of 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who usually sides with the Democrats, one absent senator can determine a bill's fate. But the candidates who structure their campaigns around their Senate duties run the risk of losing ground to rivals with more flexible schedules. These include Gephardt -- who has missed almost 90% of this year's votes in the House, where the GOP enjoys a larger majority than in the Senate -- and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Through Tuesday, Kerry has missed 43% of the 242 votes taken in the Senate; Lieberman 29%; Edwards 19%; and Graham 17%. Excluded from these figures were votes missed by Graham and Kerry due to surgeries they underwent earlier this year.

Last year, Edwards and Graham had a perfect attendance record for votes. Lieberman missed 2%. Kerry missed 4%, close to the Senate average, according to Congressional Quarterly.

In a comment similar to those by the other campaigns, Graham spokesman Paul Anderson said his boss told Senate Democratic leaders that he would be available "as needed" for votes.

"We try and schedule him around important votes," Anderson said. "But when you're running a national campaign," he added, missing some votes is "unavoidable."

Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club's North Carolina chapter, expressed disappointment that Edwards missed the vote to kill a proposal to find out how much oil and natural gas lies beneath U.S. coastal waters, the measure Edwards said could threaten the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling.

But Diggins added: "We recognize the realities that if you're going to run for president, you're not going to be able to maintain [a high] voting record."

And all four of the senators have made a point of voting on issues expected to be highlighted in the campaign, such as President Bush's tax cut.

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