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Kerry Outmaneuvered in a Rare Attempt to Vote

Times Staff Writers

Sen. John F. Kerry made a rare appearance on the Senate floor Tuesday in support of a veterans’ health measure that was ultimately delayed by the Republican leadership, a move that underscored the tricky balancing act facing the Democratic presidential nominee as he juggles two jobs.

Under fire from GOP critics for his infrequent attendance in the Senate, Kerry cut short a Southwest campaign swing Monday night to return to the nation’s capital to vote on a Democratic-sponsored amendment that would increase funding for veterans’ healthcare. The diversion forced him to skip a speech and fundraiser in New Mexico, a crucial swing state.

But the Massachusetts senator spent most of the day cooling his heels at the Capitol waiting for the vote, which GOP leaders put off.

Kerry delivered a speech in support of the measure, an amendment to a defense bill. The amendment, sponsored by Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, would increase funding for Veterans Affairs healthcare by $300 billion over 10 years. Kerry accused GOP leaders of breaking with Senate tradition by refusing to accommodate his schedule.

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“Evidently, this is not a normal time for those courtesies in the life of the Senate,” he said.

“I’ve been around here long enough to not worry about these kinds of things,” Kerry added. “So while this vote may not take place while I’m here, my support will never wane and my commitment to veterans will never be diminished.”

His allies charged that Republicans manipulated Senate procedure to keep the Democratic candidate from voting on a proposal to assist veterans, one of Kerry’s key constituencies.

But GOP leadership aides said Republican leaders were seeking to delay a vote on the veterans healthcare amendment only as a negotiating tactic involving a final vote on the defense bill.

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Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), however, also wasn’t inclined to accommodate Kerry.

“Sen. Kerry, who hadn’t been here all year, who’s missed 80% of all votes this year, parachutes in for a day and then will be taking off once again,” Frist told reporters outside the Senate chamber.

Republicans have increasingly been critical of Kerry’s absence from Congress, noting that he has missed 70% of Senate votes in the 2003-04 session of Congress. Until Tuesday, he had made only 14 out of the 132 Senate roll call votes this year.

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, both Republicans, called on Kerry to resign from his Senate seat because he was not fulfilling his duties.

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Kerry rebuffed those requests."I believe I’m serving the citizens of Massachusetts and the country,” he said last week. Without new leadership, he added, “we can’t do the things we need to do for Massachusetts, our kids, schools.”

There is no question that Kerry’s Senate responsibilities are shaping the contours of his presidential bid, including when he will announce his running mate.

A senior Kerry campaign aide said that the likelihood of a Senate vote in mid-July on a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage will influence the timing of when the campaign rolls out Kerry’s choice for vice presidential running mate. Because of that vote, Kerry will likely announce his pick in early July, or close to the Democratic National Convention at the end of the month.

“You would not want to have to interrupt your vice presidential tour” to return to Washington for a vote, the aide said.

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Kerry’s dilemma is a perennial challenge faced by presidential candidates who already hold elected office.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore rushed back to Washington several times to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, once even hopping on a commercial shuttle in New York because Air Force Two could not leave in time. Four years earlier, Bob Dole went further and resigned altogether from the Senate, leaving behind his post as Senate majority leader to campaign full time.

“It is a very powerful political weapon when your opponent can show that your attendance rate is in the teens, because most Americans have to go to work every day,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed, who was Dole’s campaign manager. “It’s not a killer issue, but it’s part of a drip, drip, drip strategy to keep a campaign off its feet.”

Still, many voters will give their elected representatives some leeway when they run for president, as long as they don’t completely neglect their post, political experts said.

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“Unless you miss a key vote for the folks back home, I think Americans understand,” said nonpartisan analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Kerry has tried to navigate those competing pressures by returning to Washington for close votes, a strategy that has occasionally backfired.

In early May, the senator opted not to leave the campaign trail in Florida to cast a vote on a measure to extend unemployment benefits because, he later said, he was told the measure was going to fail by a wide margin. In the end, it was short just one vote.

Kerry accused Republicans of manipulating the outcome of the vote to make the margin appear to be narrow.

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Tuesday’s visit to the Capitol was not completely fruitless. He squeezed in a quick meeting with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a vice presidential contender, according to Associated Press.

And Kerry cast his first votes in the Senate since March 25. He opposed a successful military procurement measure sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and supported an unsuccessful effort to shift $515 million from a missile defense system to other national security programs.

He also voted in support of a measure, overwhelmingly approved, that would sharply increase fines for radio and TV broadcasters that violate federal indecency rules.

Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein and Michael Finnegan contributed to this report. Gold reported from Albuquerque, Simon from Washington

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