Taylor’s CAFTA problem

If there was one vote this year that you wouldn’t expect Rep. Charles Taylor to miss, it was the one that came along late in the day on July 27. After months of intense wrangling by the White House, the House of Representatives finally voted on — and passed — the Central America Free Trade Act (CAFTA), legislation which many critics predict could ultimately cause sizable job losses in Southern states like North Carolina, just as surely as did NAFTA.

Before and since the vote, which passed by a narrow two-vote margin (217-215), Taylor has steadfastly opposed CAFTA in his public statements. And yet, Taylor, an eighth-term Republican who long ago proved his prowess at navigating the halls of power in Congress, somehow didn’t manage to register a vote.

Taylor, who has cast thousands of votes in his 14 years representing the people of Western North Carolina, insists that he cast a “no” vote on the crucial piece of legislation. In a July 28 statement, he asserted that “due to an error, my ‘no’ vote did not record on the voting machine.”

If that is the case, it is a most unusual error. The day of the CAFTA vote, Taylor and his congressional colleagues had cast numerous votes on a wide range of legislative matters. Taylor, for his part, successfully cast no less than 11 votes, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He voted in favor of a bill to expand patient access to drug addiction-treatment programs, for example, and for one to support women’s rights in Iraq.

And he maintains he voted against CAFTA, which was signed into law by President Bush on Aug. 2, lifting trade restrictions with the countries of Central America and the Dominican Republic. According to the official tally, however, Taylor didn’t vote on CAFTA at all.

A vote that counted?

Taylor remains adamant that he voted, but that the vote was not recorded by the electronic-voting system. But that statement differs from several other, sometimes conflicting, accounts from Taylor, his staff and other Republicans.

One of the first explanations from the Taylor camp was offered by his press secretary, Deborah Potter, who said that Taylor hadn’t been on the floor of the House, but had voted “no” with an electronic-voting card from another location. In fact, there are no voting stations outside of the House chambers, which Potter acknowledged the next day in retractions to the media. “That was my mistake,” she told Xpress. She added that she wasn’t familiar with the voting process because she spends most of her time working in Taylor’s Asheville office.

An article in the July 29 Asheville Citizen-Times reported another version, in which Brian Walsh, press secretary for Rep. Bob Ney (whose responsibilities include oversight of the House Clerk’s office), asserted that the system recorded Taylor’s vote as having come from an invalid card. On July 29, Potter told Xpress that Taylor might have used a card from the previous congressional session that was no longer valid.

Taylor stated that he’d voted with Rep. Howard Coble (a Greensboro Republican). But Coble later stated that he never saw Taylor vote. “I never saw him insert the card,” he told Joshua Michael Marshall, a Washington-based journalist who publishes Talking Points Memo, a widely read political blog. According to Marshall, Coble indicated electronic-voting system errors were rare to nonexistent, and that in his 21-year tenure in Congress, an error in the electronic-voting system had occurred “possibly once.”

Neither the Clerk of the House nor Congressman Ney’s office responded to Xpress‘ requests for information on the voting system and if any recording errors are known to have occurred with the current system — whether in Taylor’s case or anyone else’s.

There was, however, an immediate reaction from Democratic candidate Heath Shuler, who plans to oppose Taylor in next year’s election. “He gave us his word that he would vote against CAFTA, and I don’t understand why he did not,” Shuler said in a July 28 press release.

It’s too early to tell, of course, whether or not the CAFTA flap will become a campaign issue in 2006, but for now, the speculation about just how Taylor’s vote went missing continues. Last week, The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, observed that the virtually tied vote created “a political drama not seen since the Medicare vote of 2003.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the affair made Congress look like “the set of ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’” with Republican leaders going the extra mile to secure the necessary votes.

Congressional Quarterly magazine offered a related theory in a July 29 article, reporting that “GOP leaders were expecting 432 votes to be cast because one House seat is vacant … and because the leaders were willing to allow two reluctant Republicans to sit out the vote.”

The only two members of the House who didn’t register a vote on the CAFTA bill were Reps. Jo Anne Davis and Charles Taylor.

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