New Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat elected to replace the late Robert C. Byrd, chose to attend a family event over a pair of key votes Saturday that are signature pieces of his party's agenda.
His absence didn't change the outcome of the votes to repeal the military's ban on openly gay personnel or the failure of a major immigration bill. But it raised eyebrows among senators who have seen ailing colleagues wheeled in just to raise a thumb for aye or point it down for nay.
"The senator and his wife had a commitment with his grandchildren that he felt that he could not break," said Manchin spokeswoman Sara Payne Scarbro, adding that Manchin's opposition to both bills have been added to the congressional record. "He regrets missing the votes."
Manchin's absence also handed Republicans fodder to question Manchin's work ethic in advance of the senator's 2012 reelection campaign. The GOP's suggestion for Manchin's campaign slogan:
"No voting, no labels — and No skipping Christmas parties, no matter what."
Indeed, even Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden showed up Saturday - two days before he was scheduled to undergo surgery for prostate cancer. And Byrd himself showed up for votes well after he couldn't walk on his own. Memorably, Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., just hours after surgery, was wheeled into the Senate chamber in 1985 to cast his vote on President Ronald Reagan's budget.
Manchin's absence Saturday excused him from going on-record on two potentially uncomfortable matters before the Senate.
Had he attended the session, Manchin would have been the only Democrat to vote no on repealing the military's "don't-ask-don't tell" ban on openly gay personnel. The bill passed 65-31.
He also opposed the DREAM Act, which would have granted young illegal immigrants a route to legal status. The 55-41 vote fell five short of the 60 required to advance the legislation.