Envy in the Capitol: Presidential Candidates Return

This week, for the first time in five months, Senate floor business brought all the Senate's prodigal children home from the presidential campaign trail on a single day.

That's right, a series of high-profile votes on the budget resolution was magnet enough to bring the last three senators still alive in the White House contest back to town at once.

Republican John McCain of Arizona was on hand, having wrapped up the GOP nomination for president earlier in the month. McCain could scarcely miss a chance to vote for the amendment sponsored by himself that would eliminate legislators' favorite practice: earmarking funds in spending bills for special projects back home. McCain has made a lonely crusade against earmarks for many years, and now the issue is one of his best bridges to fiscal conservatives in the GOP voting base.

Democratic rivals Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York were also in the chamber, chatting up their old colleagues and making nice with each other for the C-SPAN cameras. With five weeks to go before the next campaign event in Pennsylvania (April 22), both could afford to spend some time on their day jobs. Besides that, it was a chance to chat up the Democratic senators from Florida and Michigan about disputed votes in those two states.

Despite months of missed votes, the three were not shunned as wayward siblings but welcomed as returning heroes. That is because the Senate considers this sort of absence quite acceptable and even honorable. After all, being a presidential hopeful is almost part of a senator's job description.

Consider that those warmly greeting the return of the three included several colleagues (Sam Brownback, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd) who until recently were competing against them in Iowa and New Hampshire (before their own presidential hopes played out).

There were others, of course, who had flirted with the idea of running for president this time around but demurred: Chuck Hagel of Nebraska on the GOP side, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Evan Bayh of Indiana among the Democrats.

An even larger number of incumbent senators could greet McCain, Obama and Clinton with rueful smiles and memories of their own White House campaigns in earlier eras: John Kerry and Joe Lieberman (2004), Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole and Orrin Hatch (2000), Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter (1996), Tom Harkin (1992) and Ted Kennedy (1980).

Beyond all these, there are many others in the chamber who have dreamed of presidential glory without declaring for the office in public. And yet again as many are dreaming that dream now with their hopes set on four, eight and 12 years from now.

Few indeed are those in the Senate who have never peered into the mirror and heard "Hail to the Chief" playing faintly in the distance. So it should surprise no one that these three illustrious absentees were objects of admiration and envy when they strode the Senate's deep blue carpeting again this week.

In days ahead, it is possible that McCain will make the Senate his base of operations, at least temporarily. He needs to re-engage with the issues of the day and benefits politically by doing so. He can make his forays into the country from here as well as anywhere.

Obama and Clinton are less likely to be visible in Washington. Their struggle goes on into Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky among other states.

But there remains a chance that all these aspirant presidents will be drawn back to the reality of their current jobs for a major issue or crisis precipitated by the current president. This week George W. Bush reissued a 1995 order finding that a national emergency exists with respect to Iran and its threats to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the U.S.

The State Department called this reissue of the 13-year-old order completely routine. But the language recalls the preamble to the invasion of Iraq. So with the fifth anniversary of that war at hand, the coincidence of the order's renewal drew notice.

In the same week, Admiral William Fallon abruptly resigned as chief of the U.S. Central Command, which runs American military operations in the Middle East. It was widely known that Fallon opposed military confrontation with Iran and regarded the Bush administration's policy posture against Iran as aggressive and inadvisable.

Now this 40-year veteran is gone. And while his superiors at the Pentagon were at pains to deny any move against Iran was imminent, the impetus for the question was obvious. Add to all this the plan for Vice President Dick Cheney, the leading Iran hawk in the administration, to travel to the region to visit, among other places, Oman, the forward logistics hub for U.S. operations in the theater.

It may be an illusion, but all these signs point in one direction. Could the lame duck president who has been well below 40 percent approval for two years be planning a major rearranging of the landscape? Might he attempt to re-seize the initiative in his final months by striking Iran?

Such an attack would radically reshape the national debate and the 2008 presidential campaign overnight. Perhaps it's time all the senators who would be president spent more time back in the Capitol peforming their duties including their responsibility to provide oversight of the executive branch in a time of war.

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