SAN FRANCISCO – Democrat John Kerry (search) criticized Republicans on Wednesday for denying him a chance to cast a Senate vote, blaming a partisan culture created by President Bush and calling his rival "the greatest divider as a president in the modern history of this country."
As he returned to the campaign trail after a one-day interruption for Senate business, the four-term Massachusetts lawmaker made it clear that he would try to make the political maneuvering in the Senate an issue in his presidential bid.
Kerry told donors at a $2 million breakfast fund-raiser and later in a speech to union workers that he canceled all his campaign events Tuesday to return to Washington to vote for more spending on veterans' health care.
"But oh, no," Kerry said at the fund-raiser. "Oh, no. Not in this Senate, not with these people. Once again, it's my way or the highway, shut the door, lock the people out, don't let them take part in the democracy, don't respect the institution. Don't show the common courtesies that actually bring people together to find the common ground. So they found a way all day to twiddle their thumbs, do very little, attend a reception at the White House, but not let John Kerry vote.
"That's the way they play," Kerry continued. "That's what's at stake in this race. George Bush talked about being a uniter, not a divider. But he's been the greatest divider as a president in the modern history of this country. And we need to change."
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry's lashing out at Bush for being denied an opportunity to vote is "baseless" when Kerry has been absent for more than 80 percent of the votes this year, including others to improve veterans benefits and financially support the troops in Iraq.
Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., dismissed Kerry's complaints.
"This isn't about courtesy. This is about commitment. We were here hoping to go to a vote on that amendment if we could get a commitment (from Democrats) for final passage" of the underlying defense bill, he said. "We were working on that when John Kerry left town."
Several Republicans, speaking on condition of anonymity, said GOP senators were in no mood to rearrange the Senate's schedule on Tuesday to accommodate the Democratic presidential contender. Meeting at their weekly lunch, several Republican senators said the GOP, as the majority party, should not go out of its way to assist Kerry.
The issue also came up on the Senate floor Tuesday, when Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Frist had personally told him "that he didn't want to accord Sen. Kerry the opportunity to vote today knowing, of course, Sen. Kerry was here today."
As he travels the country campaigning for president, Kerry rarely is in Washington to vote, but he wanted to cast a vote for veterans, a Republican-leaning group that he is targeting in his tight race against Bush.
Republicans were eager to deny Kerry the moment he sought and delayed the vote. But they may have given Kerry a chance to fault the GOP for playing politics with veterans and remind voters of his own service to the country.
Speaking earlier to the fund-raiser that brought in $1 million for Kerry's campaign and $1 million for the Democratic National Committee, the Democrat said he learned when he returned from fighting in Vietnam what happens when a war loses the people's support.
"I came back to a nation that was indifferent, if not divided over that, certainly indifferent about the role of the soldiers who were quickly cast aside as America confused the war with the warriors, something that I would never, ever commit again," Kerry said to applause from his supporters. "Which is why I felt so strongly about that issue of health care yesterday."
Kerry canceled a day of campaigning in the swing state of New Mexico to wait for the Senate vote that never happened. But he could use his move as cover for missing future votes — then he can claim that even when he moved heaven and earth to get to the Senate, the Republicans wouldn't let him participate.
"These people are so petty, so sad, so political, that all they could do is spend the whole day finding a way not to let John Kerry vote," Kerry said in a speech to the Service Employees International Union.
Kerry also raised $2 million — split evenly between his campaign and the DNC — at two fund-raisers in San Jose Wednesday night.