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Trying to depict her chief rival as calculating and wishy-washy, Sen. Hillary Clinton says Sen. Barack Obama ducked tough votes over eight years as an Illinois state senator by voting "present" instead of "yea" or "nay" 129 times on bills dealing with issues including abortion rights, gun control and the privacy of sex-abuse victims.
She questions whether Obama would be capable of making tough choices in the Oval Office.
"On issue after issue that really were hard to explain or understand, you voted present . . . And anytime anyone raises that, there's always some kind of explanation," Clinton said in her most direct attack, during a Jan. 21 Democratic debate in South Carolina.
Indeed, Obama regularly exercised this option during his time in the Springfield state house, though he did so in a chamber where voting "present" is a common strategic maneuver. Moreover, Obama clearly articulated his position on issues such as abortion before and after the votes.
"Everyone I've spoken to who's familiar with this, including lobbyists and people who are engaged in opposition research, say the number of times he voted present on a proportional basis was probably a little less than average," said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Obama had no such worries coming from a solidly Democratic district on Chicago's south side. But his aides and political allies say he provided strategic cover for other Democrats by voting present on Republican proposals. It worked like this: Republicans controlled the state Senate for much of Obama's tenure and GOP leaders often forced votes on social issues such as abortion restrictions that put some Democrats in swing districts in a difficult position. By voting "present," Obama, a known abortion rights proponent who represented a safe Democratic district, made it more acceptable for Democrats in swing districts to vote present as well, sparing them the pain of a straight "no" vote that would open them up to election-year attacks.
And a "present" vote could sometimes work as well as a "no" in stalling legislation.
The down side to all this maneuvering is that Obama is seen as having shown up but not taken a position on measures such as a proposal to allow juveniles as young as 15 to be tried as adults if they committed a crime with a firearm near or on school grounds. He similarly voted present on a bill to prevent sex-related shops from opening near schools or houses of worship, which ultimately did not become law, and on a measure to ban a procedure opponents call partial-birth abortion that passed the Senate. He was the lone present vote on bills to protect the privacy of sex-assault victims and to impose tougher requirements on individuals seeking to adopt children.
Pam Sutherland, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, said she asked Obama to vote "present" on several bills that proposed narrowing abortion rights – including a package of bills to expand legal protections to infants born alive at any stage of development, including if the birth occurred in the process of an abortion – in order to persuade centrist Democrats and even some moderate Republicans to do the same.
"He said, 'You know, I am a no vote on these bills,' and I said, 'You know they respect you and if you vote present, it will be easier for them to vote present,'" Sutherland said. "Because people were consistently voting present, the Senate president stopped putting (attack) mailers out to those districts."
The record is clear that Obama did vote "present" more than 100 times (we couldn't confirm the 129 figure because records for one session of the state senate during his tenure aren't available electronically). That's out of more than 4,000 votes cast. On many of those votes, Obama was joined by many in his party, making it clear that he was, as he claims, casting votes as part of a broader legislative strategy.
But there are several other instances in which he is one of only a few senators to vote "present," and at least eight where he was the only senator to vote "present." In those cases, it's hard to see the party's fingerprints on his position, and it's easier to see political expedience. Ultimately, the record is mixed, leaving us little room for more than Half True.
Obama campaign website, "Present Votes Are an Accepted Legislative Strategy in the Illinois Senate."
Interview with state Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, Feb. 11, 2008.
Interview with former state Sen. Doris Karpiel, Feb. 11, 2008.
Interview with state Sen. Christine Radogno, Feb. 8, 2008.
Interview with University of Illinois political scientist Christopher Mooney, Feb. 4, 2008.
Interview with Illinois Planned Parenthood Council Chief Executive Officer Pam Sutherland, Jan. 24, 2008.
Jan. 21 Democratic debate Transcript
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