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Campaign trail leads lawmakers to miss congressional votes

By Erin Kelly | Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — When President Bush asked the Senate to confirm his choice for a new chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman stood in his way.

The Connecticut senator railed against Bush’s attacks on clean air laws and used a parliamentary maneuver to block a vote on his nominee, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, for more than 50 days.

But Lieberman missed a chance to grill Leavitt at a Senate hearing, choosing to raise campaign money in California instead. And when it came time to vote on Leavitt’s nomination on the Senate floor, Lieberman wasn’t there, opting to campaign in New Hampshire.

Lieberman’s truancy is not unique, and he’s not the worst.

As they crisscross the country on a quest for a new job, Democratic presidential candidates Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and John Edwards also are frequently playing hooky from their $154,700-a-year jobs in Congress. The four lawmakers have missed scores of votes on issues that affect people’s lives, from prescription drug benefits for senior citizens to increased funding to keep Americans safe from terrorism.

Gephardt, a Missouri representative, missed 91 percent of the 601 House roll call votes this year through October, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of votes compiled by Congressional Quarterly, a nonpartisan publication that covers Congress.

Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, missed 62 percent of the 432 Senate roll call votes during the same period. Lieberman missed 54 percent and Edwards, a North Carolina senator, missed 36 percent.

The average House member and senator missed 4 percent of votes this year, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who is not considered a front-runner, missed only a little more than that, 6 percent.

“Congressman Kucinich has skipped many opportunities to campaign because he needed to be in Washington to do his job,” said David Swanson, the congressman’s campaign spokesman. “He sees it as his responsibility as a member of Congress to be there for the votes.”

Although many of the votes were on important issues ranging from abortion restrictions to funding for the war in Iraq, most weren’t close.

Lieberman was quick to point that out in a statement explaining that he would miss the Leavitt confirmation.

“I have made every effort to cast my vote when it appears it would be decisive, but in this case it clearly will not,” Lieberman said before the 88-8 vote to confirm Leavitt.

But with Congress split along party lines, one vote can make a difference.

"The more they’re absent, the greater the risk that their absence could spell defeat for their party’s position,’’ said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.

Gephardt missed a July vote on a bill he opposed to overhaul the Head Start preschool program for poor children. The bill passed 217-216.

Gephardt, who believed the bill would dismantle Head Start, could have created a tie vote, which would have defeated the legislation.

But Gephardt’s campaign spokesman, Erik Smith, argued that Gephardt’s opposition would not have made a difference because GOP leaders could have persuaded at least one Republican to change sides.

Still, Gephardt and the other candidates are missing votes on the very issues they talk most about on the campaign trail. Consider:

— Gephardt, who speaks often of the high cost of prescription drugs, missed a July vote on legislation to let Americans buy cheaper U.S.-made drugs from Canada and Europe.

— Kerry, a strong advocate of free trade as a way to create jobs, missed two July votes to approve U.S. trade pacts with Chile and Singapore.

— Lieberman, who pushed the Bush administration to create a Department of Homeland Security, missed a July vote on a $29.3 billion bill to fund the new department and a January vote to confirm Tom Ridge as its head.

— Edwards, whose home state is plagued with smog caused in part by polluting power plants, missed the Oct. 28 confirmation vote on Leavitt, who will decide how to enforce clean air laws.

Most Americans don’t believe a member of Congress can be effective while running for president, according to a new CNN-USA TODAY-Gallup Poll conducted Oct. 24-26. Of the 500 people surveyed, 61 percent said members of Congress should resign if they want to run for president.

Kathleen Tepiew, 51, a registered Democrat from Springfield, Mo., agrees. Although she doesn’t live in Gephardt’s district, she said she expects lawmakers to show up for work.

“They have to live up to their commitment,’’ she said. "They need to be there so we get our voice heard.”

But others say missed votes are to be expected when members of Congress run for president.

“Sure, in an ideal world, you’d expect them to show up for all of the votes,” said Troy Morken, a 27-year-old student in Springfield who considers himself an independent. “But the reality is that he’s running against other people. It’s just part of the territory.”

Not surprisingly, the Republican National Committee has attacked the lawmakers for missing so many votes. So has Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who chose not to run for re-election as Vermont governor.

But missing congressional votes doesn’t necessarily cost votes on Election Day.

It’s common practice for candidates to keep their congressional jobs while seeking their party’s nomination — as Gephardt and former Tennessee Sen. Al Gore did back in 1988 and former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, did in 1984. Gephardt, Glenn and Gore were re-elected to their seats after their unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination, and Gore went on to be elected vice president in 1992.

In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas resigned from the Senate to run for the White House, but only after securing the GOP presidential nomination.

“The attendance record itself isn’t particularly harmful,” said Pitney. “Lieberman, for instance, missed a lot of votes running for vice president in 2000 yet was re-elected to the Senate.’’

Last month’s CNN-USA TODAY-Gallup Poll found 49 percent would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who missed a significant number of votes while 47 percent said it would make no difference, well within the 5 percentage point margin of error.

Scotty Ellis, a 41-year-old Democrat from Waynesville, N.C., was critical of Edwards for missing votes but said she’s not sure it will cause her to vote against him in the Democratic presidential primary.

“It could,” she said. “I’d have to look at all the candidates first.”