For Obama, bipartisan aims, party-line votes
A desire to build cross-party consensus in Senate rubs up against political perils of compromise.
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Other efforts didn't go as smoothly. During negotiations over lobbying and ethics reform in early 2006, Senator McCain sent Obama a blistering letter accusing him of "self-interested partisan posturing" for backing a plan that McCain saw as damaging to bipartisan negotiations. Obama sent McCain a letter denying the charge and told reporters that McCain was being "cranky."
Tempers soon cooled. But the two did not see eye to eye on the final reform package, which was overseen in the Senate by Obama and another Democrat, Russ Feingold. The measure became law without the support of McCain, a longtime leader on ethics and campaign-finance reform, who said it did not go far enough to curb pork-barrel spending.
Obama was part of the bipartisan group of senators who began meeting in 2005 on comprehensive immigration reform. But last summer, with the presidential nominating race well under way, Obama backed 11th-hour amendments – supported by labor, immigrant rights, and clergy groups – that Republicans saw as imperiling the fragile compromise.
None of those measures passed. But Obama was part of a 49-to-48 majority that voted to end after five years a temporary worker program that had been a cornerstone of the immigration deal. The vote, backed by labor, was seen as a major setback to bipartisan negotiations.
"That's great to talk about bipartisanship and change, but to bring us together on big issues, you've got to say no to your base," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, whose approval ratings in his home state plummeted during the debate.
"Bipartisanship that really matters on something big comes at a price," says Senator Graham, a prominent McCain supporter. "I was disappointed" in Obama.
Obama aides say he voted to sunset the proposed program because it lacked adequate wage protections for temporary workers. The comprehensive reform effort died after Obama and other senators tried – but failed – to put it to a floor vote.
Obama aides dispute his rating by the nonpartisan National Journal as the Senate's most liberal senator in 2007. They note that he was campaigning and missed a third of the 99 votes on which the magazine based its tally. "Obama has spent his career in public service uniting Americans of different ideologies and from different backgrounds to take on our common challenges," Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman, writes in an e-mail.
Still, the magazine's ratings from earlier years show Obama drifting left. It ranked him the 16th most liberal senator in 2005 and the 10th most in 2006. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was rated 20th most liberal in 2005 and 32nd in 2006.
In the end, analysts say, a short stay in the Senate may be a blessing for a proponent of post-partisan unity.
"The longer you stay in the Senate – the more votes you take, the more fights you get into – the harder it is to expand your base," says Donald Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian. "The more you have cases where you tried a coalition and it didn't work, or you backed out of a bill because you ... had problems with constituencies back home, the more ammo the other side has against you."