- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Republicans yesterday forced Sen. Barack Obama to vote against what they labeled his own $1.4 trillion spending plan, cobbled together from his presidential campaign promises — one of a series of budget votes that will provide political fodder for the rest of the election year.

Mr. Obama and Sens. John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton jetted back to Washington yesterday to vote during the annual budget free-for-all that compresses votes on a host of contentious issues into a single day.

That meant taking positions on border security, energy independence, President Bush’s tax cuts and Democrats’ spending plans, each of which might come back to haunt the three major-party candidates still vying for the chief executive’s slot, and could be used in this year’s Senate elections as well.

The Arizona senator voted for every one of the Bush tax cuts offered yesterday, while Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama only voted to extend those for low-income workers and families with children.

All three teamed up late last night to take on the congressional sacred cow of pork-barrel spending, but failed spectacularly, losing 71-29 in their effort to enact a one-year ban on so-called earmarks.

“We found out tonight that there’s only one place in America that doesn’t get it,” Mr. McCain said after the vote.

He did better gaining support among his fellow Republicans — 22 more of whom voted for the ban — than did his Democratic opponents, who were only able to muster three other Democrats. They were all joined by Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent.

With all of the candidates in town, it also was a chance for planning and problem-solving.

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton had some face-to-face sit-down time alone with each other, and each had extended talks with the Democratic senators from Florida and Michigan. Both of those states are in danger of losing their delegates’ representation at this year’s Democratic nominating convention because they voted too early, violating party rules.

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, told the candidates they must find a solution, since, according to one poll, 22 percent of independent voters say the mess makes them less likely to vote Democratic in November.

“The fact that we’re able to look eyeball-to-eyeball, they see the intensity of the issue,” Mr. Nelson told reporters later.

He floated his own solution yesterday, which would seat half of Florida’s delegation, giving Mrs. Clinton extra delegates but not the margin the New York senator would have if the entire delegation were seated.

Meanwhile, the Clinton and Obama campaigns announced the candidates will debate in Philadelphia next month, before Pennsylvania’s primary.

The House passed its own budget yesterday, but with no presidential hopefuls and stricter rules there was far less of what Mr. Obama, departing the Senate after Republicans voted on his spending plans, told a colleague amounted to a lot of “sound and fury.”

Republicans’ “Obama spend-o-rama” amendment epitomized the day.

Sen. Wayne Allard, the Colorado Republican who is retiring after this year, offered the amendment, though as he explained on the floor to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, “It wasn’t my idea.”

That came after Mr. Schumer, walking by his desk, was heard in the gallery telling Mr. Allard, “You’re such a…” as his voice trailed off and became unintelligible to those in the galleries surrounding the Senate floor.

Mrs. Clinton, eager to make sure her opposition was recorded, voted twice — once from the desks and, in case the clerk didn’t notice, she strode into the well of the Senate to be certain.

Near the end of the allotted time, Mr. Obama, who had been in an office just off the Senate floor conferring with a group of senators who back his presidential bid, strode to the floor with those supporters and all of them voted no.

The Illinois senator looked over the chamber and demanded to know who orchestrated the stunt. Spotting Mr. Allard, he yelled to him, “You working this hard?”

“Vote yes,” Mr. Allard shot back — though even he didn’t vote for the amendment himself, drawing a rebuke from Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat: “Did you vote against your own amendment?”

Flying into Washington yesterday, Mr. Obama criticized Mr. McCain for flip-flopping to now embrace most of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts.

“He made a decision to reverse himself on that, that was how I guess you got your ticket punched to be the Republican nominee. But he was right then and he’s wrong now,” Mr. Obama said.

For his part, Mr. McCain spent the time in between votes huddled in an office off the floor, consulting with Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is close to him, and Mr. Lieberman, who also endorsed him.

But he missed several key red-meat issue votes when he left in midafternoon, about an hour before two contentious votes on immigration, to attend a previously scheduled fundraiser in Pennsylvania.

His votes wouldn’t have made a difference on the immigration amendments, but he lost a chance to prove to conservatives he embraces the enforcement-first policy on immigration that most Republicans demand. He also lost out on clarifying differences with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama on an amendment to prevent the federal government from suing to overturn the Salvation Army’s “English in the workplace” policy.

Both the English and enforcement-first amendments passed with bipartisan support, though Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton voted against each of them.

The Democratic National Committee blasted Mr. McCain for missing votes, but singled out an amendment on energy independence while ignoring the tougher issue of immigration. That could be because, despite their two presidential hopefuls’ votes, Democrats themselves were not unanimous on immigration — 13 Democratic senators supported the Republican enforcement-only approach, and it passed 61-37.

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