What Kerry's 20 years of Senate votes reveal

Kerry Campaigns In New York City
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry addresses a rally Tuesday at City College in New York City.Chris Hondros / Getty Images file
/ Source: msnbc.com

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's more than 5,000 roll call votes over his nearly 20 years in the Senate create a composite sketch of his ideology.

The mosaic that takes shape as one examines Kerry’s votes is one of a Democrat who has been skeptical of weapons programs such as the B-2 bomber but who has supported U.S. military action in some cases, as in Bosnia in 1995 and Iraq in 2003.

On domestic issues, Kerry has consistently voted against the death penalty and just as consistently voted for abortion to be legally protected. His votes also show him to be a strong supporter of federal protection of gay and lesbian rights.

Arriving in the Senate in 1985, Kerry defined himself in opposition to the two Republican presidents who served during his first 12 years in the Senate, Ronald Reagan from 1985 to 1989 and George Bush from 1989 to 1993.

A Democratic loyalist
On most major issues coming before the Senate during those years, Kerry was a party loyalist, siding with the Democratic majority and against the president. Likewise during Bill Clinton’s eight years in office Kerry was usually a stalwart vote to support the president’s position.

According to vote analyses done by the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly, Kerry voted in opposition to Reagan 75 percent of the time in 1985 and 73 percent of the time in 1986.

In 1993, according to Congressional Quarterly, Kerry voted in support of Clinton’s positions 93 percent of the time. The following year, Kerry voted in support of Clinton 89 percent of the time.

Here are Kerry’s significant votes in some key policy areas.

Kerry joined other Senate Democrats in the Reagan era in opposing the president’s efforts to send aid to the anti-communist contras who were trying to overthrow the government of Marxist Daniel Ortega.

In 1986, for instance, he voted against a measure to provide $100 million in aid to the contras.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kerry, like many other Democrats, became a predictable vote against adding weapons systems to the arsenal.

In 1994, for instance, the Senate faced the question of whether to spend $150 million to keep open the option of building more B-2 bombers.

While Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., then the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supported the money, the Clinton administration said the country could not afford additional B-2 aircraft.

Kerry sided with 36 other Democrats voting to delete the $150 million, while 19 Democrats, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, voted for the $150 million.

On votes on overseas deployment of American forces, Kerry’s record has been mixed.

Opposing 1991 Gulf War
He joined most Senate Democrats in voting against use of U.S. military forces in 1991 after Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait. Kerry preferred relying on an economic embargo against Iraq to put pressure on Saddam to pull his troops out of Kuwait.

“We think we can get it over with an acceptable level of casualties,” Kerry said during the 1991 Senate debate. “We seem willing to act ... with more bravado than patience.”

Kerry called it a “war for pride, not for vital interests” and said that “our impatience with (economic) sanctions and diplomacy does not yet warrant that horror." He also complained that "there is a rush to war here."

In 2002, with Iraq again the issue and Bush’s son in the White House, Kerry voted for the resolution authorizing use of military force in Iraq. He had misgivings about it, as he made manifest in statements before and after the vote.

In a July 31, 2002, hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said, “We lived with Russia for almost 50 years with the capacity to destroy us many times over, and a policy of containment worked there. Why could not a policy of containment also work here at least while you build up to that point of legitimacy?”

After casting his “yes” vote on Oct. 11, 2002, Kerry complained two months later — using the identical phrase he used in 1991 — about a “rush to war.”

Kerry also contended that the congressional vote wasn't all that significant since Bush already had the authority to use force without it. He added that, even despite that vote, Bush had still not earned "the legitimacy and consent of the American people."

Opposing Iraq funding
Then in 2003 he voted against the $87 billion Bush requested for continued funding of the Iraq operation, one of only 12 senators to vote “no.”

“I cannot vote for the president's $87 billion request because his is not the most effective way to protect American soldiers and to advance our interests,” Kerry told the Senate. “We need more countries sharing the burden and more troops on the ground providing security. We need a fairer way to pay the bill.”

He also called the supplemental spending bill “padded with requests that go far beyond Iraq's emergency needs.”

Kerry supported an amendment to the $87 billion request that would have rescinded some tax cuts for those making over $300,000 a year in order to help pay for Iraq operations.

Kerry also voted to support U.S. military operations launched during the Clinton administration in Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo in 1999.

Kerry has long supported trade accords that lower tariffs and other barriers to imports and exports. In 1993 he voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, arguing that NAFTA “will open the door to more jobs in the United States.”

He also voted for “fast track” procedures in 1997 and 2002 to allow the president’s trade negotiators to more quickly reach trade accords with foreign governments.

In 2000, Kerry voted for the free trade accord with China. Partly due to that deal, the U.S. trade deficit with China, at $124 billion last year, is the largest it has with any of its trading partners.

On social policy Kerry has compiled one of the most liberal records in the Senate. In 1996, he was one of only 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman and said that no state would be required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Kerry said at the time, “this bill is not necessary. No state has adopted same-sex marriage.” He also said the law was “fundamentally unconstitutional.”

That same year he voted for a bill that would have banned employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In 1996 Kerry voted to uphold Clinton’s veto of a bill banning so-called partial birth abortions. Last year he voted against a similar bill, which was later signed into law by President Bush.

On occasion, as with the overhaul of the federal welfare entitlement, Kerry has adapted to changing circumstances.

In 1988, Kerry voted against a 16-hour-per-week work requirement for welfare recipients, but by 1996 he had come around to supporting a welfare overhaul bill that included a rule that within five years, states have half of their welfare recipients working at least 30 hours a week.

Kerry has voted against confirming four Supreme Court nominees who were selected by Republican presidents: William Rehnquist in 1986, Robert Bork in 1987, David Souter in 1990 and Clarence Thomas in 1991.

He voted for both of Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

In retrospect, the most surprising of those votes is his vote against Souter, who, after sidestepping questions about his beliefs during his confirmation hearings, turned out to be a solid member of the court’s liberal wing, with views on gay rights and abortion that are in line with those of Kerry himself.

But at the time of the Souter confirmation vote, Kerry appeared to follow the lead of women's rights groups, such as the National Abortion Rights Action League, which opposed Souter's nomination because he had refused to make a commitment to uphold the Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion decision.

Between 1988 and 1991, Kerry voted five times against imposing the death penalty including for:

  • Terrorist murders of American citizens outside the United States.
  • Crimes committed by so-called “drug kingpins.”
  • Homicides involving firearms.
  • Drug-related homicides in the District of Columbia.

But in 1996 Kerry voted for a bill expanding the federal death penalty to include certain terrorist acts. That measure also restricted death row appeals by prisoners, leading to speedier executions.

When Kerry’s opponent in the 1996 Senate race, William Weld, criticized him for voting against the death penalty for terrorists, Kerry replied that many nations would refuse to extradite accused terrorists to the United States if they faced the death penalty. “Your policy would amount to a terrorist protection policy," Kerry told Weld. "Mine would put them in jail."

(Kerry says he now favors the death penalty for terrorists.)

Kerry has voted against tax cuts and in favor of tax increases, combined with spending restraints in some cases, to move toward the goal of a balanced federal budget.

In 1993 Kerry voted for President Clinton’s budget measure that included an increase in the top tax rate to 36 percent, a 4.3 cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax and an increase in the amount of Social Security benefits subject to taxation.

But the following year Kerry voted against a bipartisan effort to cut spending by $94 billion over five years, and in 1995 Kerry opposed a Republican plan to cut projected spending by $900 billion over six years.

In 2001 and again in 2003, Kerry voted against the tax cut legislation supported by President Bush that cut income tax rates and increased the size of the tax credit for most couples with children under age 17.

In sum, Kerry has amassed a voting record that put him decidedly to the left of more hawkish, conservative Democratic senators such as Lieberman or Southerners such as Georgia's Nunn or Louisiana's Sen. John Breaux. It's unlikely he could have won election to the Senate from Georgia or Louisiana, and he will have difficulty carrying such states on Nov. 2.

But on two high-profile votes, welfare reform and the 2002 Iraq war vote, Kerry took stands that drew fierce fire from fellow liberals in his party.