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Perfect attendance? Not for Democratic presidential hopefuls

Members of Congress running for president have already been missing votes

Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., are among the Democratic presidential candidates who may have a schedule crunch between votes and the debates this week.  Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., are among the Democratic presidential candidates who may have a schedule crunch between votes and the debates this week.  Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Any time a member of Congress runs for president, there is a tension between voting on Capitol Hill and campaigning on the trail. It’s still relatively early in the 2020 cycle, but the seven senators and four House members running are already racking up absences. 

All of the sitting lawmakers who are seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination have already missed votes, some more than others. And with the first of the party’s presidential debates taking place on Wednesday and Thursday in Miami, several of them are likely to miss more votes this week. 

Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are all running, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, squabbled in public view Tuesday over Schumer’s request to postpone votes on a border humanitarian aid supplemental and the fiscal 2020 defense authorization until after the two nights of presidential primary debates.

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“It’s obvious that he feels the need to shut the Senate down in effect for a couple of days in order to accommodate all the members of his conference who are running for president,” McConnell told reporters.

“We should wait to have a vote until the full body is present,” Schumer said, adding, “We want to negotiate. I believe we can work all of this out.”

The jostling between McConnell and Schumer over the schedule ahead of the July Fourth recess is the first time there has been a public expression of concern about significant and contentious votes taking place while the presidential hopefuls are absent.

But absences there have been. 

An analysis of CQ Roll Call vote data from the beginning of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3 to June 23 shows that Booker leads the pack in absences for 2020 candidates in the Senate, with 64 missed roll call votes, or 36 percent of votes so far this year. 

The New Jersey Democrat, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, was the only senator to miss the vote confirming John Abizaid as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia earlier this year. His missed votes also include a slate of district judge and other nominations. In previous years, Booker’s missed vote percentage has rarely topped 10 percent in a quarter, and was usually much lower.

Harris ranks second in votes missed among 2020 candidates in the Senate. The California Democrat has missed 49 votes, or 27 percent of votes through June 23. Gillibrand comes in third with the New York Democrat missing 38 roll call votes, or 21 percent.

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The rest of the senators in the presidential race fall in line, with Vermont’s Sanders missing 31 votes, Massachusetts’ Warren 22 and Minnesota’s Klobuchar 20. Bennet is squarely in last place, with the Colorado Democrat having voted all but 12 times on the floor.

Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Eric Swalwell is leading the large field of 2020 Democratic candidates in one thing — missed votes in Congress. But there is a caveat, and it is a big one. 

CQ Roll Call vote data shows that the California Democrat had 176 missed votes, or approximately 44 percent of roll call votes on the House floor.

The bulk of Swalwell’s absences came over the course of two days in June when House Republicans staged a protest of sorts, requesting roll call votes on scores of amendments to a spending package they didn’t like.

Many of the proposals would have otherwise been rejected or adopted by a simple voice vote. They ended up forcing roll call votes on more than 70 amendments June 12 and 13, two days Swalwell missed. That increased his percentage of missed votes significantly.

“The 15th district of California remains Rep. Swalwell’s priority,” a spokesperson from Swalwell’s congressional office said. “If a scheduling conflict requires the congressman to miss a vote, he is diligent about ensuring how he would have voted is on the record.”

Swalwell’s record in previous years has included very low percentages of missed votes. He only missed 22 roll call votes in all of 2017. In 2018, his percentage increased in the months around the birth of his daughter.

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan ranks second among the House Democratic hopefuls, with 112 missed roll call votes, or 28 percent. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton is in third, missing 54 votes or 13 percent. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has missed the fewest votes of the House candidates, absent for 47 or 12 percent.

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Political reality check

The current political reality on Capitol Hill is that a handful of Democratic absences isn’t likely to affect the outcome of much of the business in the House and Senate.

McConnell has packed the Senate schedule with votes on President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, which after a rule change orchestrated by the Kentucky Republican now only need a simple majority to advance instead of 60 votes. That means the nominees can sail through the Senate with only Republican votes and Democratic “nays” can’t stop them.

But those rules only apply to nominations. Bills still need a 60-vote supermajority to move forward. 

In the House, the solid Democratic majority means that there are few close votes on party priorities brought to the floor by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The caucus can carry most things forward, even if all four House members running for president are absent. 

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Part of a pattern

Missing votes when running for president, or any other office, isn’t a Democratic affliction or one new to the 2020 campaign cycle.

In 2016, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas took heat for missing so many votes as they fought for their party’s presidential nomination.

In fact, the top vote truants in the Senate in the 114th Congress during the 2016 campaign cycle were all running for president.

The four senators with the most missed votes were Cruz, Rubio, Sanders and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, all fighting for a chance at the presidency. The fifth was Republican David Vitter, who was running for governor of Louisiana.

And reaching back to the 2008 cycle, the absences were even more pronounced for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. 

As a Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama missed 38 percent of Senate votes in 2007 and 64 percent in 2008. He beat Arizona Republican John McCain, who missed 56 percent of Senate votes in 2007 and 81 percent of votes in 2008. 

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