Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is unlikely to introduce any major legislative proposals in the Senate this year, aware that Republican opposition and an abbreviated calendar in the chamber make approval of any bills he authors doubtful.
As the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Kerry could potentially use his Senatorial prerogative to offer detailed plans on domestic or foreign policy issues in the form of legislation to benefit his White House bid, but his top Congressional aides said there are currently no plans to do that.
“Republicans have said that the Senate is a place where they plan to make political statements in regards to the presidential election and we are not doing that with regards to legislation,” said George Abar, Kerry’s legislative director. “If we introduce something, it is going to be of substantive value.”
Instead, Kerry will continue to promote his main legislative themes on the campaign trail, where he can have fuller control of these proposals than he would in the Senate, where they could be turned into a political football by Republican Senators.
“The moment he puts a piece of legislation forward it is going to be analyzed from stem to stern and all of its infirmities will be held up to daylight for everyone to see,” warned a senior GOP Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
So far in the 108th Congress, Kerry has been the primary author of 30 bills, many of which deal directly with tax or small-business issues, the latter related to his position as the ranking member on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. In the first four months of 2004, Kerry has offered two bills dealing with small-business issues, but aides note he also continues to co-sponsor legislation offered by his colleagues and will participate in the appropriations and authorization process this year.
There are a handful of bills Kerry has penned this Congress that correlate directly to his presidential campaign, including legislation requiring the federal government to spend the same amount of money on infrastructure needs in the United States as it is spending on rebuilding Iraq. There are no co-sponsors for this bill, which was referred to the Finance Committee on Nov. 6.
Another Kerry bill directs the federal government to reimburse families and soldiers for personal money spent to buy body armor for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the sole co-sponsor of this legislation, which was referred to the Armed Services Committee on Dec. 9.
It became clear in late February that the Senate would become one of many battlegrounds in the presidential contest when Kerry was the favorite to win his party’s presidential nomination. At the time, Republicans indicated that they would use the Senate floor to try to snare the Massachusetts Democrat in a series of “bear traps.” In turn, Democrats said they too would use the chamber floor to defend Kerry’s record and hope that when the opportunity presents itself he will he do the same.
“Given that Republicans have decided to use the floor to launch petty attacks instead of to legislate, we hope and expect that Senator Kerry will speak out about his vision for creating jobs, bringing positive change to the country and restoring credibility to the White House,” said Todd Webster, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
While Kerry’s Democratic allies lock horns with their Republican counterparts in Congress, Kerry will be focused on campaigning across the country, leaving little time for him to return to Capitol Hill, although he has said he will try to return to the Senate for close votes. A staff of about 40 people is manning his Senate offices on Capitol Hill and in Boston as the campaign continues to expand.
Headed by Chief of Staff David McKean, Kerry’s legislative office is charged with minding the shop back home, including watching out for his parochial Massachusetts interests as well as monitoring the activities of the four committees he sits on.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, said that while a candidate will periodically be briefed on goings-on within Congress, there is little time to do anything except campaign.
“Obviously, when you are in a full, hard campaign like that you are kept up to speed on what is going on, but it is not significant,” McCain said. “It is an 18- to 20-hour-a-day process on the campaign trail.”
Still, McKean said the Kerry office is functioning “essentially the same” as it was before the presidential contest “except we don’t have the Senator here for as many votes, because he is obviously on the road campaigning.”
“But that doesn’t mean that every major bill that comes up isn’t being scrutinized by the staff,” said McKean, adding that his staffers continue to follow votes and floor activity “very, very closely.”
Abar, the legislative director, serves as the liaison to the Democratic leadership and represents Kerry at the weekly Democratic Caucus meeting, while McKean is the political designee in the office and interacts with the presidential campaign. Last month, Kerry hired Andy Davis, retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings’ (D-S.C.) spokesman, to head up his Senate press shop.
Abar said a main part of his job is to map out the legislative week and decide if Kerry might be needed in Washington for a critical vote. Pulling the candidate off the campaign trail is not an easy task, McKean added.
“If you have something coming up, it is fairly difficult to get him back here,” he said. “It means he is going to have to move heaven and earth to do it. And so this could mean changing a huge fundraiser, so that kind of thing takes a lot of time and I think people think it is a just a matter of, ‘Oh well, he is not going to be in Michigan today, he will come back to Washington.’ It is not that simple.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who challenged Kerry for the Democratic nomination this year, acknowledged that organizing a campaign schedule around the Congressional calendar is tricky.
“There were days when we just had to scrap a day and cancel the fundraiser,” Lieberman said.
Kerry has returned to the Senate several times since it became clear he would be his party’s presidential nominee, the most recent occasion being March 25, when he voted against a bill that would establish penalties for harming an unborn child during the commission of a crime. The bill, opposed by abortion rights groups, passed by a 61-38 margin.
In addition to being responsible for Kerry’s scheduling, as Republicans begin to pick apart his 19 years in the Senate, the legislative staff is charged with offering explanations for each of the Massachusetts Democrat’s votes.
“I think we have done a pretty good job in keeping a really good record of the Senator’s votes and why he voted [that way] in the past,” McKean said. “We know the context. Often what needs to happen on a vote, it needs to be put in context.”
While McKean tries to keep a semblance of order, in the Senate office the daily routine has indeed changed. Abar said the office now “gets bombarded with calls that are campaign related” and McKean noted he gets “dozens of résumés” from people looking to work on the campaign.
“People tend to sort of still see this office as sort of the point of reference for John Kerry, rightly or wrongly,” McKean said. “So there is a fair amount of diverting to the campaign.”
When describing how the atmosphere in the office has changed since Kerry emerged victoriously from Iowa, a grin appeared on McKean’s face.
“People smile a lot more now,” he said.