By Stephen Dinan
Democrats missed a good chance to try to defeat President Bush's competitive-sourcing initiative, which would privatize some government jobs, and unions are blaming presidential candidates Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry for missing the vote.
"There's disappointment that senators who are presidential candidates were not there," said one union source who had been tracking the issue. "It seems they may have been blindsided by the schedule of the vote, and if that's the case, it's certainly understandable, but it's disappointing."
At issue are Bush administration rules to let companies compete for government contracts to do commercial-like functions. Unions see it as a threat and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, offered an amendment to a spending bill Thursday to block those rules.
The amendment failed 48-47, but Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was on the floor ready to vote for it, which would have made the vote a tie. If Mr. Edwards or Mr. Kerry had voted, the amendment probably would have passed. Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, also missed the vote. The other Democratic presidential candidate in the Senate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, voted for the amendment.
With the House having passed its own amendment in September to block the rules, both chambers had a chance to be on record opposing the administration. That would have made it almost certain the union position would have prevailed when the House and Senate spending bills are squared with each other in a conference committee.
"It would have stayed in conference. It would have enabled the federal employee unions to achieve their objectives," said Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat. "If both houses of Congress put it in, case closed."
Mr. Moran, whose Northern Virginia district is home to many federal employees, supported the House amendment. He said there is room to outsource some jobs, but the Bush administration is moving too quickly. He said the amendments simply sent a signal to the White House to slow down.
But with a White House veto threat and the Senate on record supporting the administration, the union position is much less secure.
Mr. Moran said there's bound to be bitterness on the part of federal employee unions towards the presidential candidates who missed the vote.
"It makes it difficult for them to now turn to the federal employee unions and ask for their support," he said. "This was the most important vote of the year for federal employee unions, by far."
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said knowing the senators would have voted for it means they are still in a strong bargaining position.
"It's unfortunate, but we know their positions on this and they support our position on this," she said.
The issue is very important to unions, said Carl Goldman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, which includes federal employees. He said the amendment's narrow defeat "will enable the Bush administration to continue its program of selling America to its corporate allies."
"The outcome of this vote is not good for the U.S. public, for federal employees, nor the public interest. It is only good for the privateers," he said in a statement.
Several observers said the senators have some excuse because Senate leaders didn't announce until Wednesday night that the bill would be considered Thursday.
A spokeswoman for Mrs. Mikulski didn't return a call yesterday and neither did Tony Wyche, a spokesman for Mr. Kerry.
Mike Briggs, spokesman for Mr. Edwards, said the senator was in Iowa campaigning on Thursday.
"When you run for president you sometimes, unfortunately, miss votes," Mr. Briggs said. "It's important to keep in mind the big picture, that changing who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is going to have more of an affect on the lives of workers in the long run."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and the sponsor of the House amendment, took the same view.
"I just hope one of those guys who was out campaigning is in the White House next year," he said.
Missed votes are an issue in the presidential campaigns, with the Republican National Committee sending out regular updates pointing out how frequently Democratic candidates fail to make votes.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, leads the pack, having missed 512 House votes, a 90 percent absentee rate. Mr. Kerry was absent 60 percent of the time in the Senate, totaling 246 votes; Mr. Lieberman has missed 215 votes, or 52 percent, Mr. Edwards has missed 133 votes, which is 32 percent, and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich has missed just 7 percent of the votes, totaling 38.
Unlike the competitive-sourcing vote, missed votes usually don't affect the overall outcome. For example, Mr. Edwards missed a vote earlier this week on a bill to ban partial-birth abortions, but that bill passed 64-34.
Still to come this year are key votes on more of the president's nominees. On Monday, for example, the Senate will have a vote to determine the level of support for Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, who has been nominated to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sometimes, showing up for a vote also gets a candidate in trouble. Mr. Lieberman annoyed some Democrats this week by coming back from the campaign trail in order to vote against party leaders and support the Republicans' class-action lawsuit reform bill.