WASHINGTON — Members of Congress who run for president have always had to juggle their Capitol Hill responsibilities with the need to get out, campaign and raise bundles of money.
But an unusually large herd of legislators — six senators and four congressmen — is off pursuing the presidency this year, the campaign has begun earlier than ever and bigger — and more expensive — primaries will be held early next year.
That's made it harder than ever for lawmakers to balance ambition and responsibility, especially the Democrats, who have a 50-49 majority in the Senate. Should they stay and grapple with divisive issues such as immigration and Iraq, or get out and glad-hand more Hollywood stars, trial lawyers and online activists?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has admonished the hopefuls not to let fundraisers, speeches and other events keep them from casting important votes.
"We have people running for president on both sides of the aisle," Reid said. "They should plan on being here. Their votes could make the difference."
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who had a speech scheduled in Los Angeles on Friday and a dinner in Arkansas set for Saturday, has missed only five of the Senate's 226 recorded floor votes this year, the fewest of the Senate presidential hopefuls.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has missed the most votes — a whopping 117. He spent this week zipping from New York to Massachusetts to Florida to Michigan to Minnesota.
McCain "continues to be committed to his constituents and has not missed a vote where his vote would have affected the outcome," spokeswoman Melissa Shuffield said Friday.
Here's the missed vote tally on the others:
- Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., 81
- Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., 62
- Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., 59
- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., 23
The absence of presidential contenders has yet to save or kill priority legislation this year, but it's shaded some results.
Dodd was one of three Democrats who missed an embryonic stem cell research vote in April. Had those three voted, the Senate would have fallen only one vote shy of a veto-proof majority.
Five Senate presidential hopefuls — all but Clinton — skipped a procedural vote earlier this month that would have paved the way for a no-confidence vote against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The 53-38 vote was seven short of the number needed to survive a filibuster and move to a no-confidence vote, so in that sense their votes wouldn't have made a difference. But by missing the vote, Dodd, Obama and Biden diluted the Senate's stand against the attorney general.
Meanwhile, McCain, who's said that Gonzales should resign, and Brownback managed to dodge taking recorded positions on a question that divides the GOP.
The absence of a few presidential contenders is less of an issue in the House of Representatives, where there are four hopefuls in the 435-member body.
The Senate moved late Thursday to pass an energy bill to raise fuel economy standards, a Democratic priority. Passage would have been impossible if more than two of the four Senate Democrats running for president had been absent, but Clinton, Obama, Biden and Dodd all stuck around for the last energy bill vote, shortly before midnight. Republicans McCain and Brownback were campaigning and missed the votes.
Reid said that senators may have to work late into the night next week and even into next weekend to win passage of pro-union and immigration legislation and to begin debate on a new anti-war measure before lawmakers break for the weeklong July 4 recess.
(Matt Stearns contributed.)