2006 Vote Ratings: Special Report - Left to Right

March 3, 2007, 7 a.m.

Richard E. Co­hen

In the already-com­bat­ive 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, most of the can­did­ates in each party are mem­bers of Con­gress, and they have cast many hun­dreds — even thou­sands — of votes. Their le­gis­lat­ive track re­cords leave the White House con­tenders open to plenty of poin­ted ques­tions from voters and the news me­dia — and provide op­pon­ents with end­less op­por­tun­ity for mis­chief and at­tacks.

Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, D-N.Y., for in­stance, has been strug­gling to de­fend her vote on Oc­to­ber 11, 2002, in fa­vor of the res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing the use of U.S. mil­it­ary force in Ir­aq. “If I had known then what I know now, I would nev­er have voted to give this pres­id­ent that au­thor­ity,” she has said re­peatedly. But Clin­ton has been un­will­ing to sat­is­fy those who want her to “apo­lo­gize” or to ac­know­ledge that she erred. “If the most im­port­ant thing to any of you is choos­ing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mis­take, then there are oth­ers to choose from,” she said in New Hamp­shire on Feb­ru­ary 17.

Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., mean­while, has run in­to trouble for a vote that he did not cast. He was ab­sent when the Sen­ate held a rare Sat­urday ses­sion on Feb­ru­ary 17 to take up the House-passed res­ol­u­tion op­pos­ing Pres­id­ent Bush’s troop surge in Ir­aq. Dur­ing an ap­pear­ance in South Car­o­lina, Mc­Cain called the vote “a charade, a joke, a pub­li­city stunt on the part of the Demo­crats.” But Demo­crats hammered him nev­er­the­less. “Mc­Cain’s de­cision to cam­paign in­stead of vote of­fers the Amer­ic­an people an un­flat­ter­ing glimpse at an es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ate who will do any­thing to win the Re­pub­lic­an primary,” a Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spokes­man said.

As the cam­paign in­tens­i­fies, the law­makers-turned-pres­id­en­tial-wan­nabes will be put on the spot to ex­plain their votes on count­less top­ics: tax cuts, Medi­care cov­er­age, abor­tion rights, im­mig­ra­tion policy, de­fense spend­ing, for­eign aid, and on and on. “A mem­ber of Con­gress’s his­tory of roll-call votes is an op­pos­i­tion re­search­er’s gold mine,” said Neil Ne­w­house, a part­ner in Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies, a Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ing firm based in Al­ex­an­dria, Va. “Any­body with a vot­ing re­cord is vul­ner­able.” His pres­id­en­tial cam­paign cli­ents have in­cluded Bob Dole, who was forced to de­fend 27 years of Sen­ate votes, and George W. Bush, who was nev­er a le­gis­lat­or.

An­ita Dunn, a vet­er­an cam­paign strategist at the Wash­ing­ton-based Demo­crat­ic firm Squier Knapp Dunn, said that the pub­lic has grown “in­creas­ingly skep­tic­al about the single vote plucked out of thin air in a cam­paign.” But “a pat­tern of vot­ing is more prob­lem­at­ic,” she said. “And when the words come dir­ectly from a can­did­ate’s mouth, voters are less skep­tic­al.”

Both Ne­w­house and Dunn poin­ted to the now-in­fam­ous ex­plan­a­tion giv­en by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., dur­ing the 2004 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, when he tried to cla­ri­fy his op­pos­i­tion to an Ir­aq war spend­ing bill by not­ing, “I voted for it be­fore I voted against it.” The cur­rent crop of pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates and their hand­lers, the op­er­at­ives warned, must be pre­pared to avoid such blun­ders. “Can­did­ates should make sure that they do a thor­ough re­view of their re­cord be­fore they be­gin a cam­paign … and plan ac­cord­ingly,” Dunn said. Ac­cord­ing to Ne­w­house, “It’s hard to re­but the facts about a vote. Can­did­ates have to re­spond more broadly.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al’s con­gres­sion­al vote rat­ings for 2006 demon­strate that plenty of am­muni­tion will be avail­able dur­ing the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. The com­puter-as­sisted rat­ings, which NJ has pre­pared an­nu­ally since 1981, used 82 key votes in the Sen­ate and 95 in the House to meas­ure the mem­bers of each cham­ber on an ideo­lo­gic­al scale.

Of the four Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors who are run­ning for pres­id­ent, Barack Obama of Illinois had the most lib­er­al score in 2006. He was fol­lowed by Sens. Chris­toph­er Dodd of Con­necti­c­ut, Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Clin­ton. In fact, Clin­ton was markedly more mod­er­ate in 2006 than Obama, who was the 10th-most-lib­er­al sen­at­or. The sole Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate from the House, Den­nis Ku­cinich of Ohio, had a strongly lib­er­al vot­ing re­cord. (See chart, p. 22.)

Among the three Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors who have form­ally de­clared their can­did­acy for the White House, or are ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing a run, the most con­ser­vat­ive in 2006 was Chuck Hagel of Neb­raska. Close be­hind him was Sam Brown­back of Kan­sas, while Mc­Cain was more mod­er­ate. Of the three House Re­pub­lic­ans who have launched long-shot pres­id­en­tial bids, Duncan Hunter of Cali­for­nia was the most con­ser­vat­ive, fol­lowed by Tom Tan­credo of Col­or­ado and the mav­er­ick Ron Paul of Texas. (See chart, p. 24)

What fol­lows are high­lights of those 11 can­did­ates’ 2006 scores, plus a look at their his­tor­ies in NJ’s vote rat­ings over the course of their le­gis­lat­ive ca­reers. (For an ex­plan­a­tion of the key votes used to cal­cu­late this year’s rat­ings, see pp. 42-47. The vote rat­ings from 1995-2006 are avail­able on­line at na­tion­al journ­al.com.)


Obama: Dur­ing his two years in the Sen­ate, Obama has been among its more lib­er­al mem­bers. In the 152 Sen­ate votes that were used in NJ’s rat­ings in 2005 and 2006, he voted against the lib­er­al po­s­i­tion only 12 times. Many of those votes dealt with na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sues or pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tions. Per­haps his most high-pro­file split with lib­er­al or­tho­doxy came on the second vote that he cast in the Sen­ate, to con­firm Con­doleezza Rice as sec­ret­ary of State; 13 Demo­crats op­posed her nom­in­a­tion. Obama sided with con­ser­vat­ives three times on Bush’s ju­di­cial nom­in­ees: He voted in 2005 for clo­ture on Priscilla Owen and to con­firm Thomas Grif­fith, and in 2006 for clo­ture on Brett Kavanaugh.

Obama has sided with con­ser­vat­ives on sev­er­al anti-ter­ror­ism is­sues, in­clud­ing a vote au­thor­iz­ing the con­struc­tion of a new pris­on at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and two early-2006 votes on ex­tend­ing the USA PAT­RI­OT Act. And he par­ted com­pany with Sen­ate lib­er­als on three for­eign-policy votes last year by op­pos­ing a re­quire­ment that Bush with­draw all troops from Ir­aq by Ju­ly 2007, and by sup­port­ing a free-trade agree­ment with Oman and a nuc­le­ar en­ergy agree­ment with In­dia.

Obama split with lib­er­als on only two eco­nom­ic votes, both in 2005: He voted to give the fed­er­al courts jur­is­dic­tion over most class-ac­tion law­suits, and he backed the en­ergy bill con­fer­ence re­port. In 2006, he was one of 13 Sen­ate Demo­crats with a per­fect lib­er­al score on eco­nom­ic is­sues. Obama’s 12 con­ser­vat­ive votes in the 2005-2006 rat­ings in­cluded four on which Clin­ton sided with the lib­er­als: She voted against class-ac­tion law­suit re­form, the en­ergy bill, the Grif­fith nom­in­a­tion, and clo­ture on Kavanaugh.

Al­though Obama’s “life­time av­er­age” com­pos­ite score in NJ’s vote rat­ings is the most lib­er­al of the cur­rent pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates who serve in Con­gress, the res­ults give him some evid­ence to as­sert that he has not been an ideo­logue. Fif­teen sen­at­ors were more lib­er­al than him in 2005, and nine were more lib­er­al than him in 2006. In each case, the more lib­er­al sen­at­ors in­cluded Obama’s home-state col­league, Richard Durbin, the Demo­crat­ic whip.

Dodd: The vote rat­ings for Dodd — the sev­enth-most-seni­or Sen­ate Demo­crat, who is now chair­man of the Bank­ing, Hous­ing, and Urb­an Af­fairs Com­mit­tee — ranged widely dur­ing his first two terms. From 1981 to 1984, he con­sist­ently scored among the most lib­er­al sen­at­ors. Al­though nev­er No. 1, he was among the top 10 lib­er­als dur­ing each of those years. He then moved meas­ur­ably to­ward the cen­ter. In 1991 and 1992, his com­pos­ite score placed him among the most con­ser­vat­ive third of Sen­ate Demo­crats, es­pe­cially on for­eign policy.

Since that time, his rat­ings have shown a re­mark­able con­sist­ency, pla­cing Dodd — who suffered a one-vote loss to Tom Daschle in a bid to be­come minor­ity lead­er in 1995 — near the cen­ter of Sen­ate Demo­crats. From 1994 to 2005, with one ex­cep­tion, his com­pos­ite lib­er­al scores ranged nar­rowly between 75.5 and 81.5. Dur­ing that same peri­od, his rat­ing on for­eign is­sues was of­ten to­ward the cen­ter, while his scores on so­cial is­sues were to­ward the left.

In 2006, as Dodd was pre­par­ing to launch his pres­id­en­tial bid, he earned his second-most-lib­er­al com­pos­ite score since 1984. He had a nearly per­fect lib­er­al score on so­cial is­sues, ex­cept for his vote to ap­prove the con­fer­ence re­port to ex­tend the PAT­RI­OT Act. As in the past, he was more cent­rist on for­eign policy, where he par­ted com­pany with lib­er­als by op­pos­ing “am­nesty” for ter­ror­ists in Ir­aq, a troop with­draw­al dead­line in Ir­aq, and set­ting con­di­tions on the use of cluster bombs, and by sup­port­ing the nuc­le­ar en­ergy pact with In­dia.

Clin­ton: A re­view of Clin­ton’s vote-rat­ings scores shows a clear-cut shift. In the first three years after her elec­tion in 2000, when she fo­cused her at­ten­tion chiefly on her home state, she was twice among the most lib­er­al sen­at­ors: She ranked 12th in 2002 and tied for sev­enth the fol­low­ing year. In each year, Clin­ton had a per­fect lib­er­al score on so­cial is­sues; she had a per­fect lib­er­al rat­ing on eco­nom­ic is­sues in 2002.

Since then, with the pro­spect of a pres­id­en­tial bid loom­ing, Clin­ton has moved not­ably to­ward the right among Sen­ate Demo­crats. Only 12 Demo­crats had a more con­ser­vat­ive score in 2004, and 12 were to her right again last year; most of them were from the South or West. In those two re­cent cases, her rat­ings were close to those of Sen. Joe Lieber­man, ID-Conn., whose grow­ing in­de­pend­ence has riled many of the party faith­ful. Al­though her cent­rism could prove use­ful if she wins the nom­in­a­tion, Clin­ton is already tak­ing flak from lib­er­als who are un­happy with her votes, es­pe­cially her re­fus­al to second-guess her 2002 vote au­thor­iz­ing the Ir­aq war.

Over­all, Clin­ton has been more con­sist­ently lib­er­al on so­cial is­sues and more con­ser­vat­ive on for­eign policy. Her for­eign-policy splits with lib­er­als dur­ing the past two years have in­cluded sup­port­ing the Rice nom­in­a­tion, funds for tele­vi­sion broad­casts to Cuba, the Guantanamo pris­on, the Oman trade deal, and the In­dia nuc­le­ar agree­ment, and op­pos­ing a troop with­draw­al dead­line in Ir­aq and set­ting con­di­tions on the use of cluster bombs. On so­cial policy, she sided with con­ser­vat­ives in 2005 and 2006 only on three PAT­RI­OT Act votes and on clo­ture on the Owen nom­in­a­tion.

Biden: Like Dodd, Biden in­ev­it­ably will be iden­ti­fied by his long ca­reer in the Sen­ate, where he was first elec­ted in 1972 and now chairs the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. And Biden’s vote rat­ings, like Dodd’s, re­veal some peaks and val­leys. His most lib­er­al phase was between 1986 and 1992, when he was among the 11 most-lib­er­al sen­at­ors three times; he had per­fect lib­er­al scores on for­eign policy dur­ing those three years. Not co­in­cid­ent­ally, per­haps, Biden ran for pres­id­ent in 1988, and he presided as chair­man of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee dur­ing some epic show­downs with Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ents.

At oth­er times, Biden has been more of a cent­rist. Four times from 1993 to 1998 his com­pos­ite lib­er­al score fell to the 60s — most not­ably in 1997, when only three of the 45 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors had a more con­ser­vat­ive rat­ing. That year, as of­ten has been the case for Biden, his score on so­cial policy was more con­ser­vat­ive than his rat­ing on eco­nom­ic or for­eign is­sues.

More re­cently, Biden has fit reg­u­larly near the cen­ter of Sen­ate Demo­crats — sim­il­ar to Dodd, but gen­er­ally slightly less lib­er­al. In a con­trast to his ca­reer pat­tern, he was more con­ser­vat­ive in 2006 on for­eign policy than in the oth­er areas. He par­ted com­pany with Sen­ate lib­er­als in sup­port­ing con­firm­a­tion of Mi­chael Hay­den as CIA dir­ect­or and the In­dia nuc­le­ar en­ergy deal, and in op­pos­ing the troop with­draw­al dead­line in Ir­aq and set­ting con­di­tions on cluster bombs. Biden had a per­fect lib­er­al score last year on eco­nom­ic policy.

Ku­cinich: First elec­ted to the House in 1996 from a largely blue-col­lar dis­trict, Ku­cinich spent his early years in the con­ser­vat­ive wing of his party, es­pe­cially on so­cial policy, where he voted against abor­tion rights. From 2001 to 2003, he moved more to­ward the cen­ter of House Demo­crats.

Since 2004, however, when he per­sist­ently pur­sued a pres­id­en­tial bid against long odds, Ku­cinich has been among the most lib­er­al House mem­bers — in­clud­ing on so­cial policy, where he shif­ted his stance to sup­port abor­tion rights. In 2005, he was the 20th-most-lib­er­al mem­ber of the House, with a per­fect lib­er­al score on for­eign policy and three lib­er­al de­fec­tions on the 83 House eco­nom­ic and so­cial votes that year.


Brown­back: Al­though Brown­back is the most con­ser­vat­ive of the Sen­ate’s pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates over­all, his vote rat­ings in re­cent years have been mov­ing to­ward the middle. When he entered the Sen­ate in 1997, after com­pil­ing a re­l­at­ively cent­rist vot­ing re­cord dur­ing two years in the House, he made his mark as one of sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans who had a per­fect con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cord that year — along with such firm ideo­logues as then-Sens. John Ash­croft of Mis­souri, Phil Gramm of Texas, and Strom Thur­mond of South Car­o­lina. Dur­ing each of the next three years, Brown­back ranked as either the 14th- or 15th-most-con­ser­vat­ive among the 50-plus GOP sen­at­ors.

Since then, Brown­back’s com­pos­ite scores have made him more of a cent­rist among Re­pub­lic­ans, though with some twists and turns. In 2003, for ex­ample, his for­eign-policy rat­ing was near the cen­ter of the Sen­ate, but he had a per­fect con­ser­vat­ive re­cord on so­cial is­sues. Last year, by con­trast, his rat­ing on so­cial policy was near the Sen­ate’s cen­ter, but he had a nearly per­fect con­ser­vat­ive re­cord on eco­nom­ic is­sues. The chief reas­on for Brown­back’s mod­er­ate score on so­cial is­sues in 2006 was that he sup­por­ted the Sen­ate-passed com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill — and op­posed most amend­ments to the meas­ure — even though many con­ser­vat­ives strongly ob­jec­ted to the bill.

With Brown­back por­tray­ing him­self in his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign as a “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ive” with a “pro-fam­ily” agenda, some of his past Sen­ate votes could raise ques­tions from po­ten­tial sup­port­ers and force him to ex­plain his ac­tions.

Mc­Cain: Like Brown­back’s, Mc­Cain’s vote rat­ings have moved sig­ni­fic­antly to­ward the cen­ter dur­ing his Sen­ate ca­reer. In the first eight years after his 1986 elec­tion, Mc­Cain was typ­ic­ally among the more con­ser­vat­ive GOP sen­at­ors. His com­pos­ite score placed him 14th among con­ser­vat­ives in 1989, and eighth in 1994, with per­fect con­ser­vat­ive scores on eco­nom­ic is­sues each of those years and on so­cial is­sues in 1994.

Start­ing with the Re­pub­lic­an takeover of Con­gress in 1995, Mc­Cain moved stead­ily away from hard-right ad­voc­ates. In 2000, dur­ing his bit­ter show­down with Bush for the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion, his scores in each of the three is­sue areas were much closer to the cen­ter of the Sen­ate. That trend con­tin­ued dur­ing the Bush pres­id­ency. In 2004, Mc­Cain was the third-most-lib­er­al Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an (be­hind only Lin­coln Chafee of Rhode Is­land and Olympia Snowe of Maine), with mod­er­ate scores in each of the three is­sue areas that po­si­tioned him vir­tu­ally at the cen­ter of the cham­ber.

In the two years since then, Mc­Cain has pulled back slightly from the cen­ter, with a more con­ser­vat­ive score on so­cial is­sues in 2005 and on eco­nom­ic is­sues in 2006. But he has re­mained among the 10 most-mod­er­ate Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. He op­posed some tax cuts and sup­por­ted ef­forts to lim­it green­house-gas emis­sions in 2005, for ex­ample, and he co-sponsored the com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill in 2006. As Mc­Cain makes a dir­ect ap­peal to Bush sup­port­ers in the 2008 cam­paign, ob­serv­ers will be watch­ing the im­pact of these votes.

Hagel: Hagel’s re­cent scores have placed him with Brown­back and Mc­Cain among mod­er­ate Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. But, un­like those two, Hagel does not have an earli­er his­tory as a strong con­ser­vat­ive. In­ter­est­ingly, his com­pos­ite score has been more con­ser­vat­ive than Mc­Cain’s in nine of the 10 years they have served to­geth­er. In 2006, for in­stance, when Mc­Cain was the 46th-most-con­ser­vat­ive sen­at­or (and Brown­back was 34th), Hagel was 29th.

Hagel sided with con­ser­vat­ives — and against Mc­Cain — on sev­er­al is­sues last year, in­clud­ing sup­port for a trust fund to com­pensate as­bes­tos vic­tims and for re­search and de­vel­op­ment to modi­fy the Tri­dent bal­list­ic mis­sile, plus op­pos­i­tion to “pay-as-you-go” budget rules, ne­go­ti­at­ing au­thor­ity for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment on Medi­care pre­scrip­tion drug prices, and fund­ing for em­bryon­ic-stem-cell re­search.

Hunter: Among the three House Re­pub­lic­ans who have de­clared a pres­id­en­tial bid, Hunter has the most-con­ser­vat­ive vote rat­ings over­all. Since en­ter­ing the House in 1981, his scores have typ­ic­ally been to­ward the con­ser­vat­ive side in each of the three cat­egor­ies. In 1987 and 1988, for in­stance, his com­pos­ite scores placed him among the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers, and he had per­fect con­ser­vat­ive scores on so­cial and for­eign-policy is­sues each year. He had a sim­il­ar pat­tern in 1994, with per­fect con­ser­vat­ive scores on eco­nom­ic and so­cial is­sues.

After Re­pub­lic­ans gained House con­trol in 1995, Hunter’s scores mod­er­ated a bit, partly be­cause he took a more pro­tec­tion­ist ap­proach to some eco­nom­ic and for­eign is­sues. That trend has abated in the past two years, and he has largely re­turned to the con­ser­vat­ive fold.

Tan­credo: Like Hunter, Tan­credo began his House ca­reer on a con­ser­vat­ive note, but his vote rat­ings have moved con­sist­ently to­ward the middle. In 1999, when Tan­credo was a fresh­man, only 19 Re­pub­lic­ans had a more con­ser­vat­ive com­pos­ite score, and he had a per­fect con­ser­vat­ive rat­ing on eco­nom­ic is­sues.

But in 2003, his scores moved markedly to­ward the cen­ter in each of the three cat­egor­ies; his com­pos­ite score was close to the House’s cen­ter. That year, Tan­credo was one of what NJ called the “mav­er­ick con­ser­vat­ives,” a shift­ing group of about 15 House Re­pub­lic­ans who bucked GOP lead­ers and op­posed ma­jor le­gis­la­tion that they viewed as in­suf­fi­ciently con­ser­vat­ive. Ex­amples in­cluded that year’s bill to provide Medi­care pre­scrip­tion drug cov­er­age to seni­ors and the costly om­ni­bus ap­pro­pri­ations meas­ure; Tan­credo op­posed those bills, ef­fect­ively align­ing with most Demo­crats and the lib­er­al po­s­i­tion.

In 2004, when the House GOP’s le­gis­lat­ive agenda had few hot-but­ton meas­ures, Tan­credo’s vote rat­ings re­turned to the more con­ser­vat­ive zone. But in the past two years he moved left again. In 2005, his scores on eco­nom­ic and for­eign policy were with­in a few points of the House’s cen­ter. And he had a sim­il­ar for­eign score in 2006, demon­strat­ing oc­ca­sion­al isol­a­tion­ism on the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ter­ven­tion­ist for­eign policy. As the House GOP’s agenda moved Tan­credo’s way last year on his sig­na­ture is­sue of a re­strict­ive im­mig­ra­tion policy, his score on so­cial is­sues was more in sync with those of oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans.

Paul: As a self-styled liber­tari­an (he was the Liber­tari­an Party can­did­ate for pres­id­ent in 1988), Paul has be­come a lead­er of the Re­pub­lic­ans who are will­ing to chal­lenge what they see as their party’s ex­cess­ive spend­ing and reg­u­la­tion. His vot­ing re­cord can be char­ac­ter­ized as a more ex­treme ver­sion of “mav­er­ick con­ser­vat­ism.” He has be­come so will­ing to shun Re­pub­lic­an policies that his vot­ing re­cord in­creas­ingly re­sembles that of a main­stream Demo­crat.

In re­cent years, Paul’s com­pos­ite score has grown more lib­er­al, es­pe­cially as his for­eign-policy votes have in­creas­ingly demon­strated his hands-off ap­proach to in­ter­na­tion­al is­sues. In 2006, for ex­ample, he op­posed funds for drug in­ter­dic­tion in Colom­bia, U.S. in­tel­li­gence activ­it­ies, mis­sile de­fense sys­tems, some for­eign aid, and the war in Ir­aq. For now, it seems un­likely that Paul will be­come a ser­i­ous con­tender for the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion. If he does, he will prob­ably have to ex­plain many of his House votes.


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