WASHINGTON – Sen. Joe Lieberman was wrangling support for his presidential bid in Keene, N.H., and Sen. John Kerry was winging his way to sunny Florida to meet with the teachers' union in mid-January when the Senate rejected increased funding for education and Medicaid. The amendment lost by two votes.
Two months later, Kerry was in Chicago raising money for his presidential campaign and Sen. John Edwards was also out of town when a Democratic amendment to fully fund President Bush's education reforms was defeated - also by two votes.
Such close roll-call votes are rare, and with Republicans controlling the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney would be available to break any ties. But as the 2004 presidential campaign heats up, the four senators vying for the Democratic nomination are spending more time on the road talking about issues, and less time voting on them.
Kerry, D-Mass., leads the pack with the most votes missed as of April 12. So far this year he has missed nearly four out of every 10 votes, not counting the two that came when he was recuperating from prostate surgery in February.
Lieberman, D-Conn., comes in second. He failed to vote on 22 percent of the 134 Senate roll-call tallies this year. Edwards, D-N.C., has missed 16 percent, and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., missed 2 percent. Graham's total does not include the 16 votes he failed to cast during his heart surgery and recovery in February.
Republicans, who hold the White House and don't have to field candidates from within Congress, trumpet the absences as "playing hooky." The Democratic contenders insist that in nearly all cases their votes would have made no difference in the result.
"There are going to be times when every senator running for president in '04 will miss votes, but Senator Lieberman takes his responsibility of representing the people of Connecticut very seriously," said Lieberman campaign spokesman Jano Cabrera. "Our goal is to try to make missing votes the exception, not the rule."
Kerry spokeswoman Kelley Benander said the campaign is in constant communication with the Democratic leadership. "John Kerry has committed to Senator (Tom) Daschle, that he will be there for any close vote. The unfortunate reality is that when you are running for president you are going to miss votes."
"Anytime the presidential candidates have been needed, they have been there," said Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Democratic Minority Leader Daschle, D-S.D. "It's worked out so far; we expect it will continue to work."
But Republicans say a vote doesn't have to be close to be important.
"Why is something important in a stump speech and not important enough to merit your attention to show up for a vote?" said Republican National Committee spokesman Dan Ronayne. "It seems that they're missing an awful lot of votes on issues that they talk about being of great importance."
Lieberman, for example, has been an ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, but when the Senate voted to fund the war, he was en route to California's Silicon Valley for a fund-raiser. And, although he was a main sponsor of the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, he was lunching with Democrats in Manchester, N.H., when the Senate confirmed Tom Ridge as the department's secretary.
He did, however, postpone that New Hampshire trip for a few hours to vote on an amendment to strengthen air pollution controls. The amendment failed 46-50. And just 10 days ago he flew back from Iowa on two hours' notice to vote on the budget resolution.
Kerry has also shuffled his schedule for votes. When the Senate was debating a bill to ban late-term abortions in mid-March, he made a quick detour to Washington between campaign stops in Boston and New York to vote to support a woman's right to have an abortion. It was a nonbinding resolution, but Daschle asked all four candidates to be there, and it passed 52-46. But Kerry and Edwards missed the final vote on the abortion ban, which passed 64-33. Both have voted against the ban in the past. So far, missing votes hasn't created a political storm for any of the candidates and it may be a non-issue, according to political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
"The line of attack on missing votes is pretty obvious: `They're not doing their job now, why should they get a promotion,'" said Rothenberg. "But I think voters understand it's hard to hold a job and run for a job."
The problem will come, he said, if one of them misses either a vote that is critical to their constituents or one where a single vote would have made the difference.
But, he noted, "it's not as if one guy is missing all the votes and everybody else is there. The fact that they're all missing votes gives the individual candidates cover."