Politics & Government

Obama's record in Senate is modest

Sen. Barack Obama listens during a 2007 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Barack Obama listens during a 2007 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama says that if he were president, he'd take politically courageous stands while forging the consensus needed to enact universal health care, immigration revisions, global warming legislation and a withdrawal from Iraq.

His three-year record in the Senate, however, offers little evidence that he can do what he's promising. His party was in the minority for his first two years, and in the third he began campaigning for president and missed lots of time on Capitol Hill. He was absent from or only partly involved in some key bipartisan efforts to head off stalemates on judicial nominations, immigration and Iraq war policy.

"He is asking us to believe he can do something he has yet to do," said Michael Fauntroy, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University.

Being one of a hundred senators, especially a junior one, is very different from being president, of course, and Senate records — impressive or mediocre — haven't always been good indicators of a candidate's fitness or readiness for the White House.

Obama, 46, an Illinois Democrat, was a leader on a significant bipartisan ethics bill that passed. He co-authored successful government-transparency legislation with one of his most conservative colleagues, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

However, he's advocated ambitious health-care expansion and largely staked out Senate positions with or to the left of his party's leaders. National Journal, a respected research publication, rated him the most liberal-voting senator of 2007. Hillary Clinton ranked 16th. The public policy magazine found Obama's votes the 10th most liberal in 2006 and the 16th most liberal in 2005.

Obama's aides take issue with the rankings because they're based on selective votes, and the standards for what's considered liberal or conservative are subjective.

Colleagues from both parties acknowledge his magnetism and respectful style, and consider him a serious student of public policy.

"I appreciated his patience," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who's neutral in the Democratic presidential contest, with his state set to vote on May 20. "By his own admission, he hadn't been in the Senate a long time, so he was willing to learn."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who's endorsed Obama, said the Illinois senator stood out in Democrats' closed-door caucus lunches.

"When he gets up and speaks, everybody tends to listen."

But other senators — especially rivals Clinton and Republican John McCain — have been irked by what at times they considered Obama's holier-than-thou posturing.

Some others said they hadn't seen much evidence of Obama's desire or ability to cut deals, bring together disparate forces or engage on legislation that didn't fit into the political narrative he wants to shape for himself.

"Aside from working with him on the ethics bill, I really had very few dealings with him," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She supports McCain but enjoys rare status as a Republican moderate, which makes her a go-to person for Democrats who are looking to build bipartisan support. "In some ways that's telling, because usually people who consider themselves to be working across party lines, the people who are inclusive, know the moderate Republicans well, and he did not."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a freshman who's yet to endorse Clinton or Obama in his state's important primary April 22, said that one difficulty of being newly elected was that "you end up spending much of your time with people in your own party. That's how the Senate works."

Obama's supporters in the Senate include liberals but also some more conservative members, including Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Nelson, along with McCain, was a leader in 2005 of the so-called "Gang of 14," a bipartisan group of senators who banded together during a showdown over President Bush's stalled judicial nominees. Their pact assured that Republicans wouldn't take away the minority's ability to filibuster presidential nominees. In turn, it guaranteed that some nominations being held up would be allowed to proceed.

Obama never joined that group.

Nelson said it was unfair to emphasize that, however, because Obama wasn't pressed to join. "When we got to seven (Democrats) counting myself, there was some discussion of expanding it but there was the thought it would be more unworkable," Nelson said. "He didn't duck out."

Obama later was among those Democrats who voted against the nomination of Bush nominee John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court. Roberts, a conservative considered a top legal mind by his peers, was nonetheless confirmed as chief justice.

As for Obama's position on the Iraq war, even as he attacks Clinton for initially supporting the war and boasts that he opposed it from the outset, he was politically cautious about how soon and how hard to push for withdrawing troops.

Obama, like Clinton, for years had shied from demanding a binding timetable for withdrawal. Finally last May, with Democrats strongly against the war and their presidential candidates under intense pressure to take stands, Obama and Clinton said they'd support cutting off war funding by the end of March 2008.

When that push fell short and the time came time to vote on extending Iraq war funding without a withdrawal date, Obama and Clinton kept quiet until the end of the tally, showing up with the vote well in progress to vote "no."

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, a member of his party's leadership team, won't be voting for Obama. But at 74, Bennett takes the long view.

"It's very hard to measure any senator this soon, particularly someone whose first two years were in the minority and whose next year has been spent running for president," he said.

Obama "does have political skills that would serve him well," and besides, "We really don't have any standards to judge how a Senate career would affect a White House (term). We only have one modern example, John F. Kennedy, and he was not much of a senator. So you could say the question is not even relevant."

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