McCain, Dear Leader

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential front-runner John McCain has skipped more than half the Senate’s votes in the past year but he showed up Thursday to help pass a bill to stimulate the faltering economy.

After a speech appealing to conservative activists who have largely shunned his candidacy, McCain voted with 32 other Senate Republicans to pass an economic rescue plan of rebates to most taxpayers and $300 checks to low-income people, including disabled veterans and the elderly.

Almost every Republican lined up to shake his hand and congratulate the Arizona Republican, who only a few hours earlier sealed his hold on the GOP presidential nomination when his main rival Mitt Romney suspended his campaign. Even those who had publicly and privately feuded with McCain, had endorsed Romney or had recently expressed discomfort with McCain’s march toward the nomination were among the well-wishers.

One senator stayed seated and didn’t come to the well to vote until McCain had left the Senate’s center aisle: Larry Craig of Idaho, who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct last year. McCain was one of the few Republicans to urge Craig to step down in the wake of the July 11 sex sting in a men’s airport bathroom.

McCain has missed 255 of 450 votes cast in the Senate since January 2007, including every vote this year until Thursday’s. That’s according to the Democratic National Committee, which keeps a tally.

“It’s very hard, obviously. I’ve missed a lot of votes, and there’s no doubt about it,” the Arizona senator told reporters Wednesday during a flight from Phoenix to Washington.

He added that the Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, face the same problem.

“Although with Senator Reid setting the schedule, I’m sure he shows a little more consideration to their schedule. I’m not sure mine is uppermost,” McCain said, referring to Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

In fact, Obama and Clinton have missed fewer votes.

Obama has missed about 40 percent, or 170 votes, and Clinton has missed 24 percent, or 108 votes, according to the DNC tally.

One of McCain’s missed votes was late Wednesday, when Senate Republicans blocked a bid by Democrats to add $44 billion to help the elderly, disabled veterans, the unemployed and businesses to an economic stimulus package.

McCain opposed adding the additional funds, but whichever way he may have voted, it would have been a difficult choice. President Bush and Republican leaders, as well as conservatives McCain is trying to woo vehemently oppose the expanded benefits and subsidies. But a vote against the aid could have offended millions of Social Security recipients and the disabled veterans not scheduled to receive rebates.

McCain’s policy is that when his vote will affect the outcome, he intends to be present.

Even if McCain had made Wednesday’s vote, the outcome would have been the same. Most Republicans opposed adding the extra spending to an economic aid package that already will cost $205 billion.

Clinton criticized McCain for missing the vote. She and Obama voted in favor of the extra benefits.

“By failing to stand up as the deciding vote, John McCain let our families down,” said Phil Singer, an aide to Clinton.

In response, McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said, “Our opponents should know better than to launch silly attacks over a procedural vote where the senator’s absence wouldn’t have affected the outcome.”

By voting down the rebates, Senate Republicans leave Democrats with a choice: Accept the aid package without $44 billion in extra benefits, or risk being blamed for holding it up.

McCain’s campaign plane landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia Wednesday in time to cast a vote on the tax rebates, but he apparently decided to miss it at the last minute.

He said he had “a couple of meetings scheduled,” but his campaign would not say what they were.

© 2008 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.