(1st Add: Includes reaction from Gephardt spokeswoman)
(CNSNews.com) - Democratic presidential candidates Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry are absorbing criticism for skipping the final Senate vote on the Medicare reform bill in order to make campaign appearances. The missed votes underscore Lieberman and Kerry's "dismal attendance records" in the Senate, according to a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Opponents of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act had tried to filibuster the bill in the Senate, but that effort was overcome and final passage occurred Tuesday in a 54 to 44 vote. Lieberman of Connecticut and Kerry of Massachusetts were the only two senators missing the vote, although both had been present for the filibuster battle.
In a Nov. 23 news article posted on Lieberman's presidential campaign website, the candidate was quoted opposing the bill and declaring his intention to try to defeat it.
"I will be voting against the Medicare bill, and will join Senator Kennedy's filibuster against it. As much as I want to give seniors a prescription drug benefit, they shouldn't have to swallow the many harmful poison pills that Republicans loaded into this bill just to get there," Lieberman reportedly said. However, when the final vote was cast Tuesday, Lieberman was campaigning in Arizona.
Adam Kovacevich, deputy press secretary for the Lieberman campaign, defended his boss's absence.
"He was here for the important votes on Monday, the cloture votes. The final passage vote was a foregone conclusion and so he attended his previously scheduled campaign events in Arizona," Kovacevich said.
Kerry, who was campaigning in Iowa Tuesday, issued his own statement on the issue. After losing the "critical vote" on the filibuster attempt, Kerry stated, "I returned to Iowa to take the fight for real, affordable prescription drug relief to the country as I run for President."
"I am traveling on a bus today in Iowa with seniors who understand that this bill is a raw deal and who want to replace George W Bush with a President who has the courage to fight for real prescription drug benefits that helps our seniors, instead of lining the pockets of drug companies and insurance companies," Kerry stated on his campaign website.
Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee (RNC), chastised Lieberman and Kerry for missing an "incredibly important" vote.
"Both senators have expressed a concern about prescription drugs and when they had an opportunity to actually do something to address the problem, they failed to show up," Iverson said.
"They were elected to the United States Senate to represent their constituents and to do their job by showing up to vote and it's clear that they would rather demagogue the issue on the campaign trail than show up for work in the United States Senate to actually do something to fix it," she added.
Candidates Faced With Political Dilemma
Presidential candidates, whose day jobs are in Congress, face the same political dilemma every four years - whether to attend campaign events or stick around in Washington to cast votes that sometimes involve landmark legislation.
The $395 billion Medicare bill, which President Bush is expected to sign into law, represents the largest expansion of Medicare since the program was created in 1965.
The RNC issued a release Wednesday, citing information obtained from Congressional Quarterly, indicating that Kerry has missed 64 percent of the votes cast in the Senate during the 108th Congress and Lieberman has missed 54 percent.
"No one has ever run for president from the Senate and not missed votes," Kovacevich said, in referring to the votes Lieberman has missed during the 108th Congress.
But Iverson pointed out that when Bob Dole was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, he resigned as a senator from Kansas in order to devote his full attention to running for president.
U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, also running for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, has missed 91 percent of the votes cast in the House during the current session of Congress, according to the RNC release.
"We know that Dick Gephardt has missed almost 100 percent of his votes in the United States House of Representatives and clearly the people of Missouri deserve representation in Congress just as people from other parts of the country do - and they're obviously not getting it from Representative Gephardt right now," Iverson said.
Gephardt, however, was present to vote against the Medicare reform bill when it passed the House, 220-215, on Nov. 22. In a statement issued a day before the vote, Gephardt assailed the bill for taking "dangerous steps toward privatization by forcing millions of seniors into HMOs and raising premiums for those who remain in traditional Medicare."
"This bill, which was supposed to increase health coverage for seniors, will cause two to three million retirees to lose the prescription drug coverage they already have," Gephardt asserted.
Kim Molstre, spokeswoman for Gephardt's presidential campaign, said her boss "has cast thousands upon thousands of votes" during his 27 years in Congress, but "in order to run for president, it means being out in the country talking to the American public about his ideas."
"That's what running for president takes, so he's going to do whatever it takes to run and to win and to beat George Bush in November of 2004," Molstre added. A telephone call to the Kerry presidential campaign, seeking reaction to this story, was not returned as of press time late Wednesday.
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