WASHINGTON - On a rare down day in the presidential campaign, all three major candidates returned to their day jobs in the US Senate yesterday for key budget votes.
They were not officially on the campaign trail, but they cast votes and debated issues that will probably emerge in the fall campaign.
The Senate voted 52 to 47 to reject a move to extend President Bush's tax cuts for middle- and higher-income taxpayers, investors, and people inheriting businesses and big estates.
The votes are mostly symbolic, but they put senators in both parties on the record for when the tax cuts expire in three years. Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain voted for the full roster of Bush tax cuts. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who both pledge to end the tax cuts for the wealthy to help pay for healthcare and other programs, voted against them. All three supported extending the cuts for some workers as well as couples and parents.
Obama said yesterday that McCain reversed his position on the Bush tax cuts in order to win the Republican presidential nomination, one of his sharpest criticisms yet of the Arizona senator he hopes to face this fall.
"He made a decision to reverse himself on that," Obama told reporters as he flew from Chicago to Washington for a series of Senate votes on budget issues. "That was how, I guess, you got your ticket punched to be the Republican nominee. But he was right then, and he's wrong now."
McCain has said he supports extending the tax cuts, which he initially voted against because they were not offset by spending cuts, because the economy is struggling and tax reductions can stimulate the economy. "Well, it's very clear that I voted to make those tax cuts permanent several times," he said as he flew to Washington. "Senator Obama has stated very clearly his desire to increase Americans' taxes. That'll be one of the great debates we have if he is the nominee of his party."
Also, opponents of "pork barrel" projects lost a late-night vote to ban such earmarks for a year, despite the endorsement of all three presidential candidates.
Still, Republicans asserted that it is a signature issue for McCain and that Clinton and Obama are late to the party by agreeing just this week to cosponsor the legislation. McCain called on the Democrats to disclose the earmarks they sought.
Obama, who had disclosed his earmark requests last year, yesterday released his 2005 and 2006 requests and challenged Clinton to do the same.
It was a different story, however, when it came to the extra spending Obama added to state budgets while serving in the Illinois legislature. Public records show some of the projects he sponsored as a state senator, including literacy programs, park improvements, and drill team uniforms. The earmarks added up to more than $6 million.
That covered just two of Obama's nearly eight years in the Illinois Senate. State records do not detail his projects from other years, and his presidential campaign has not responded to repeated requests from the Associated Press for information.
Obama also found himself the target yesterday of an amendment supposedly to fund every one of his proposals - a total of $1.4 trillion over five years. Sponsor Wayne Allard, Republican of Colorado, said he wanted to demonstrate the extent of the tax increases that would be needed on middle-income families to pay for all of Obama's spending proposals.
Senator Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota who supports Obama, said that the proposal was "beneath the dignity of the Senate" and that Democrats had refrained from trying to embarrass McCain in the same way.
With even Allard voting against it, the proposal was defeated 97 to 0.