WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate John McCain skipped a difficult Senate vote Wednesday on whether to make 20 million seniors and 250,000 disabled veterans eligible for rebate checks as part of a proposed economic stimulus package.
The Arizona senator's decision to miss the vote appeared to come at the last minute, after his plane had landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington just before the proceedings opened on the Senate floor.
Asked Wednesday morning to comment on the pending vote, McCain talked about the need to pass a stimulus measure quickly. Later, on his plane, he said he was not sure he would make the vote.
"I haven't had a chance to talk about it at all, have not had the opportunity to, even," McCain said. "We've just been too busy, focused on other stuff. I don't know if I'm doing that. We've got a couple of meetings scheduled."
Whichever way McCain may have voted, it would have been a difficult choice given his status as the Republican presidential front-runner.
Senate Democrats cleverly bundled the rebates for seniors and veterans, key voting blocs, with expanded unemployment benefits and home heating subsidies for the jobless and poor.
President Bush and Republican leaders, as well as conservatives McCain was scheduled to woo on Thursday, vehemently oppose the expanded benefits and subsidies.
That put McCain in a bad political spot.
Voting "no" with Republican leaders would have offended millions of Social Security recipients and the disabled veterans not scheduled to receive rebates. Voting "yes," on the other hand, risked alienating Bush, GOP leaders and conservatives already suspicious of McCain's political leanings. McCain was speaking Thursday before a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a group that booed him last year in absentia.
For McCain, not voting meant not going on the record either way. He has missed all eight Senate roll call votes this year.
Republicans prevailed in blocking the Democratic proposal, saying they will try again later to include seniors and veterans. GOP leaders would not say how McCain would have voted. Asked whether there was any reason to believe he would have broken with the party and voted for the Democrats' package, Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona said: "I have no reason to believe that."
McCain's absence, he added, would not have changed the outcome of the vote.
There was confusion among McCain's his staff about whether he would make the vote. Campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said when he landed that she believed he was headed to the Capitol to vote, but a second spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said later that he would not make it.
Democrats, including a spokesman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, jumped on McCain's absence. Clinton voted for the measure, which failed on a 58-41 vote. Supporters needed 60 votes to prevail. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had voted in favor, but switched it at the last moment in a parliamentary move that allows him to bring up the measure for another vote at a later date.
"By failing to stand up as the deciding vote, John McCain let our families down," said Clinton aide Phil Singer. "Tonight's events prove once again that we need a president who will be ready from Day One to act in the interests of middle-class families and turn our ailing economy around."
Associated Press writers Libby Quaid and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.