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For Obama, bipartisan aims, party-line votes

A desire to build cross-party consensus in Senate rubs up against political perils of compromise.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2008

Obama at work: The senator rode an elevator to his office after his 2006 vote against confirming Samuel Alito as a Supreme Court justice.


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It was an unusual choice for a candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. But in the first television ad of his campaign, Barack Obama let a Republican, a colleague from his days in the Illinois Senate, do most of the talking.

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"Republican legislators respected Senator Obama," state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a John McCain supporter, said in a spot that aired in Iowa last June. "Senator Obama worked on some of the deepest issues we had, and he was successful in a bipartisan way."

GOP leaders in Illinois excoriated Mr. Dillard for the cameo, but Obama's message was clear: Though critics may accuse him of inexperience, bipartisanship – and a hawk's eye for common ground – is one area where his record matches his rhetoric.

A look at that record reveals a more complicated picture. As Obama moved from Chicago to the Illinois statehouse and then Capitol Hill, his early idealism became more pragmatic and calculating. While his message of unity has changed little – if anything, he has refined and enlarged it – his voting record in recent years has been decidedly partisan.

As a young community organizer on the South Side of Chicago in the mid-1980s, Obama taught poor residents how to press City Hall for cleaner neighborhoods, safer streets, and new jobs. As a state senator, he worked across the aisle to reform ethics laws and brokered deals between police and civil-liberties groups on measures to curb racial profiling and wrongful murder convictions.

But the record also shows more than a passing familiarity with old-school politics. He played hardball to win his first election, apprenticed himself to a scion of Chicago's Democratic machine, and voted "present" more than 100 times in the Illinois Senate in what critics have described as a dodge of controversial issues.

In the US Senate, he scored few bipartisan victories beyond a measure establishing a website for the public to track government spending. One nonpartisan study rated his voting record in 2007 as the Senate's most liberal, and Republican colleagues have accused him of putting politics before principle on ethics and immigration bills – charges his campaign denies.

"To judge from his voting, he's still pretty partisan," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. In a polarized Senate, he says, "it's hard to be bipartisan. That said, that's the challenge he's going to face as president. If his record doesn't match what his promise is, can he achieve the promise, even if it's genuine?"

A plea for a "different kind of politics" has been a linchpin of Obama's message from the day he took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America," he said in that star-making speech. "There is a United States of America."