Playing President in the Senate

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If you want to get a better sense of the presidential candidates in 2007, you don't have to go to Iowa or New Hampshire. Just turn on C-SPAN. Nearly all of the major Oval Office contenders work in the same place, the United States Senate, where you can be sure they won't miss an opportunity to champion issues and establish themes they might run on.

This week two men who want to be champions of clean government, Barack Obama and John McCain, are pushing changes to the Senate's ethics rules. Delaware's Joe Biden, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will start a series of hearings on the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, which he has long criticized. At those hearings, you're likely to hear a lot of tough questions of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from both Biden and Obama, as well as Connecticut's Chris Dodd and John Kerry, two other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who are considering presidential runs.

The Senate, of course, is known as a place where practically every member wakes up each day wondering why he isn't on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, even if history shows that's a move few succeed at making. The last Senator elected President was John F. Kennedy in 1960, a fact you are likely to read thousands of times in the next two years. No matter. Biden is officially in the race, Dodd is likely to soon announce, McCain has an endorsement list the size of some wedding parties and is now actively reaching out to get more House members to endorse him, and Obama is calling everyone he can, from labor leaders like John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, to ex-presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Al Gore, to sound them out on a possible run.

And they're all working hard at their day jobs. Obama and McCain are both pushing for the Senate to create a separate ethics office, staffed by former judges and former members of Congress from both parties, that looks into violations of rules by members. They also want to require lawmakers to pay the full cost for flights they take on corporate jets. As part of his hearings, Biden will bring in Peter Galbraith, a foreign policy expert who backs Biden's preferred strategy in Iraq, dividing the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurd regions. For his part, Obama is looking for ways to stop Bush from increasing troops in Iraq, such as inserting a provision in the bill that funds ongoing military operations to forbid money from being spent on additional troops. Dodd, Kerry and another potential White House hopeful, Hillary Clinton, all oppose the troop increase, which McCain has long advocated.

Except for McCain's position on the troop surge, which polls show more than 60% of Americans disagree with, these stands are likely to only help these candidates when they start their presidential campaigns. While foreign policy experts generally haven't agreed with Biden's partition proposal, it further burnishes his credentials as a serious thinker about foreign policy issues. Obama's position on the war, which he was one of the few of the Democratic contenders to oppose from the beginning, is very popular with his party's base. And much of McCain's popularity stems from his work on another good government issue, campaign finance.

Of course part of the reason these people all want to be President is that, for all the attention they bring to their positions, they're not going to get what they want done as Senators. The World's Greatest Deliberative Body is likely to pass an ethics reform bill that tightens the use of corporate jets, bans gifts from lobbyists, and increases disclosure requirements, but both Democrats and Republicans have opposed the independent ethics office McCain and Obama have called for. Other Senators have argued the current ethics committee, where Senators sit in judgment of one another, works just fine.