Clinton Camp Piles on Obama's 'Presents'

Why did Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., as a young Illinois legislator, so often choose to vote "present" rather than "yes" or "no" on pieces of legislation in the Illinois Senate? That answer depends on whom you ask.

Thursday, The New York Times reported Obama voted "present" nearly 130 times as a state senator.

Anxious to spread the word, the Clinton campaign organized a conference call for reporters with members of Congress who support Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., for president.

Clinton Supporters

On the call, three U.S. representatives went after Obama's frequent use of the "present" vote, suggesting he was trying to avoid accumulating any kind of legislative record that could later be open to scrutiny if he decided to run for president one day.

"He took what many of us in public life would say is the easy way out," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from Clinton's home state of New York.

"The president of the United States needs to take a tough stand on tough issues and not say, 'I'm here but I'm not going to take a stand,'" Weiner said.

Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N..Y., said that in 1999 then-state Sen. Obama voted "present" more often than he voted "no".

"We're focusing in on his record because he says that's what matters," said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, D-Ohio, another Clinton supporter on the conference call with reporters.

Common Practice

The Obama campaign hit back at the charges Thursday.

"It's all politically motivated at a time when Clinton is sliding in the polls," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

The Obama campaign argued the practice of voting "present" is relatively common in the Illinois legislature.

Every senator from both parties that Obama served with in the Illinois Senate also voted "present" at some point in their terms, according to the Obama campaign.

And in more than 50 votes, Obama appeared to be voting "present" along with a group of other Democratic lawmakers, as part of a concerted strategy, reported The New York Times.

Legislative Strategy

Obama argued legislative strategy was often the reason behind the "present" votes.

"This was a standard practice in Illinois," Obama said on ABC News' "Good Morning America" Thursday.

"You oftentimes would strategically vote 'present' because you were still negotiating a bill or because there was some element in the bill that was unconstitutional or had problems that needed to be tweaked," he said.

"There was a signal you would send to the sponsor of the bill that you were willing to work with them to try to make the bill better."

Obama also said he "worked on tons of tough bills" and was a leader on controversial issues like the death penalty and welfare reform in Illinois.

As a percentage of some 4,000 votes he cast as a state senator, Obama said, 130 "present" votes was not that large a chunk.

"This was ... particular strategies in order to improve legislation that had an impact on my constituents," he argued.

"But, look, I understand we're in the last two weeks of a campaign and we're going to be spending time combing over everything from my kindergarten records to these "present" votes," he said.

Late Thursday night the Obama campaign sent ABC News a statement from Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.

As the former parliamentarian of the Illinois Senate, I have an understanding of that legislative body," he said, "Voting present was a widely-accepted legislative strategy used to champion progressive causes, or to ward off legislation that was unfinished or unconstitutional."

'Lack of Leadership'

Weiner, Tubbs-Jones and Crowley acknowledged that there are instances in which voting "present" is entirely appropriate.

For example, they agreed, if there was a conflict of interest or a political strategy being pursued, it might be perfectly acceptable to vote "present."

But they weren't giving Obama much breathing room.

"It shows I think a lack of leadership," Weiner said.

The Clinton campaign conference call with Clinton supporters further highlight tensions between the leading Democratic rivals. ABC News' Jake Tapper reported the Clinton campaign has secured two Web site domain names for future use against Obama: "" and "".

Crowley suggested that Obama had carried the practice of avoiding controversial votes to his role as a U.S. senator.

'Sick and Tired'

Crowley pointed to a vote Obama missed on a resolution to identify the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.

Obama has criticized Clinton for voting for that Iran resolution. He skipped the vote, citing a scheduling conflict.

Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson chimed in on the conference call with reporters to suggest they ask more questions of the Obama campaign about why he was often the only state senator to vote "present" on a particular bill.

An examination of Illinois Senate records found 36 times in which Obama was the only state senator to vote "present" on a particular piece of legislation, according to The New York Times.

"It's one thing if he's one of many," Wolfson said. "It's another if he is literally the only person voting present."

"First the attacking didn't work. Then the likability tour didn't work. Now it's back to attacking all over again," countered Obama's spokesman Bill Burton, "I think this is just the kind of politics as usual that people are sick and tired of."