As John F. Kerry learned painfully in 2004, Senate votes matter when you're running for president. You can't always explain away the nuances of Senate procedure in a debate response or a 30-second TV spot, even if there is a perfectly rational basis for voting for war funding before voting against it.
With that in mind - and with three sitting senators in the run for the White House - there's good reason this week to tune in to the usually mind-numbing congressional budget debate. The Senate floor provides a unique opportunity to watch the presidential candidates make decisive, money-where-their-mouths-are votes on every major policy subject from taxes to health care to earmarks to deficit spending.
There will be dozens of votes on amendments Thursday in the Senate, many of them written for maximum political impact with no compunction about whether they have any chance of passing.
Passing is not the point.
As the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann puts it, "The budget exercise this year ... will have little to do with substance and everything to do with posturing."
Behind every vote, there's a potential campaign ad. And with no primaries for six weeks after Tuesday's Mississippi contest, Sens., and really don't have much of an excuse for failing to show up for each of them.
Here are five worth watching:
Bush Tax Cuts
The Republicans have made an extension of the 2001 income tax cuts the centerpiece of their economic platform this year, even though the tax breaks don't expire until 2010.
Senate Republicans are planning a major tax amendment that would extend these tax cuts but also potentially cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and extend other tax breaks.
This amendment is destined to fail. But if McCain votes for it and Obama and Clinton vote against it, there's a ready-made campaign ad in which the GOP can claim that the Democratic presidential candidates voted "in favor of the largest tax increase in American history."
Democratic senators counter that the Bush tax cuts heavily favored people making more than $200,000 a year and that the tax cuts should tilt more toward the middle class. And Democrats can also make a flip-flopper argument against McCain because he voted against the 2001 tax cuts but now believes they should be extended.
"They [Republicans] can be as folksy as they want to be [in promoting tax cuts], but at the end of the day, they're still voting for tax cuts for Bill Gates and Exxon Mobil," said one Senate Democratic aide.
Democratic Tax Cuts
If they're voting against the Bush tax cuts, Democrats will want something to counter the claim that they're raising taxes on every taxpayer, so they've agreed to have a vote on a package of middle-class tax cuts sponsored by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). This amendment could help Obama and Clinton, in particular, bolster claims that, as president, they would push for a major middle-class tax cut.
The Baucus tax package would extend the $1,000-per-child tax cut, extend the $10,000 adoption tax credit, keep the marriage tax "penalty" at bay and continue tax cuts for lower income brackets.
Baucus says his amendment "is geared toward helping middle-class American families. … These are the right priorities, all paid for in the budget resolution."
Border Security and Immigration
This Republican amendment, most likely offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), offers a chance for John McCain to mend fences - quite literally - with his party over immigration, while testing the Democratic candidates' rhetoric on securing the border.
Sessions and other conservatives have been pushing an illegal immigration crackdown that would make border security a top priorty, above all other immigration proposals; potentially penalize states that give licenses to illegal immigrants; and withhold funding from so-called "sanctuary" cities that don't prosecute illegal immigrants. Republicans are seriously discussing offering a border security amendment on the budget, according to Sessions' office.
While such a vote might serve to pump up the GOP's hard-line stance on immigration, it also provides yet another opportunity for Democrats to highlight how McCain diverged with conservatives on an issue so important to the base.
In 2006, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi famously called earmarks "the currency of corruption" as Democrats sought to exploit Republican scandals over congressional earmarks.
Republicans are now trying to reclaim credibility on earmarks, and McCain has signed on as a co-sponsor to an earmark moratorium proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a fiscal hawk who has ruffled the feathers of his party leaders in his crusade to get rid of all earmarks.
Obama, who has built his campaign on government integrity and transparency and does not want to give McCain a free pass to claim any moral authority on this topic, signed on to the moratorium Monday afternoon. Clinton quickly followed suit. Obama and Clinton have requested hundreds of millions in earmarks during their Senate tenure, and McCain does not ask for earmarks.
Outside of presidential politics, an earmark debate in the Senate will illustrate a deep divide between the old bulls who run the Senate and the new generation that believes earmarks - regardless of how legitimate they may be - have been tainted.
Appropriators such as Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) oppose DeMint's earmark amendment, which has won some surprising support from freshman Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Universal health care is a centerpiece of both Obama's and Clinton's domestic agenda, so any debate over health care is a chance for Democrats to hammer Republicans, who remain focused mostly on tax credits for health care.
There may not be a separate health care amendment on the Senate floor, but the Democratic budget resolution contains a $50 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. That means the final vote on the budget resolution - likely to fall along party lines - will give the Democratic presidential candidates a chance to tout their support for health coverage while blasting McCain for voting against health care for uninsured children.
The Democratic budget resolution also would make room for another $35 billion in economic stimulus, with the funds potentially going to unemployment insurance, food stamps and infrastructure spending.
By Martin Kady II