WASHINGTON — The similarities between Hawaii’s two congresswomen are often noted. Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Mazie Hirono are both Democrats. They’re both Japanese-Americans. They both identify as Buddhist.

But a Civil Beat analysis of all 691 House roll call votes from January through August reveals that there are key areas where Hanabusa and Hirono differ.

For example, when it came to passing bills related to defense spending, patent reform and the U.S. role in Libya, Hawaii’s congresswomen did not agree.

Mostly, Hanabusa and Hirono voted the same way. Out of 691 votes, there were 87 times — or 13 percent — that they did not.1

Sometimes Hanabusa and Hirono disagreed on small things — like whether to adopt the congressional journal. Most of their disagreements were on proposed amendments to larger bills that Hanabusa and Hirono ultimately agreed upon. None of their voting differences were on bills that passed or failed by such a narrow margin that a single vote would have changed the outcome.

About one-third of the time that Hanabusa and Hirono voted differently, it was because one of them didn’t vote at all. Of the 691 roll call votes, Hanabusa abstained from six votes, while Hirono abstained 23 times.

As Democrats in a Republican-ruled U.S. House, Hawaii’s congresswomen have limited influence to begin with. But for Hawaii residents who are represented solely by Democrats in Congress, the areas where Hanabusa and Hirono differ provide a more complete understanding of how the state’s one-party dominance plays out in lawmaking. Their differences also illuminate individual approaches to policy-making at a time when both congresswomen are under fresh scrutiny and entering new political campaigns.

Hirono announced in May that she will run for the U.S. Senate seat that Sen. Daniel Akaka is vacating when he retires in 2012. Hanabusa has not yet made public whether she’ll challenge Hirono for the Democratic nomination in that Senate race, or run for re-election in the House. Former Congressman Charles Djou, a Republican, announced on Wednesday that he is running to unseat Hanabusa in the House.

Here is a small sampling of some of the key differences between Hanabusa’s and Hirono’s voting records this year, as detailed by records kept by the U.S. House clerk:

Date Bill: Pertains to Hanabusa Hirono Final Vote GOP Votes Democrat Votes
4/14 H.R. 1473: Defense spending Yea Nay 260 – 167 passed 179 – 59 81 – 108
5/26 H.R. 1540: Defense spending Yea Nay 322 – 96 passed 227 – 6 95 – 90
6/3 H.R. 292: Limit action in Libya Yea Nay 268 – 145 passed 223 – 10 45 – 135
6/3 H.C.R. 51: Remove U.S. from Libya Yea Nay 148 – 265 failed 87 – 144 61 – 121
6/22 H.R. 2551: Legislative spending Nay Yea 252 – 159 passed 213 – 16 39 – 143
6/23 H.R. 1249: Patent reform Yea Nay 304 – 117 passed 168 – 67 136 – 50
7/8 H.R. 2219: Defense spending Yea Nay 336 – 87 passed 224 – 12 112 – 75

Defense Spending

Hawaii’s congresswomen had consistently different approaches to defense appropriations. Hirono voted against the passage of three extensive defense appropriations bills, while Hanabusa voted for them.

All three passed, and Hanabusa was usually among a minority of Democrats voting in support of these bills. She told Civil Beat that her role as a member of the House Armed Services Committee helped inform her decisions.

“There may not be everything in it that I like or I agree with, but that notwithstanding, you have to keep in mind the significance as it pertains to Hawaii in particular,” Hanabusa said. “We have many men and women in Hawaii who are dependent on (defense appropriations). What the focus is, in terms of the future, it is clear that the Pacific is the theater that we are all going to be looking at. Given that, I have been in support of our (military) role in the Pacific.”

Hanabusa said her belief in the importance of the military’s role in Hawaii came before her concerns about the United States’ path forward in Afghanistan, for example.

“I’ve always had a question about Afghanistan and where we’re going in terms of Afghanistan and even Iraq,” Hanabusa said. “I believe we need to do a reasonable and safe drawdown but I’m not necessarily in agreement with the fact that the president has not made it very clear about when he is going to do the drawdown… I’ve wanted to see a more definite statement as to how we are going to draw down. That’s part of the budget that I don’t agree with.”

Hirono cites her concern over foreign policy in the Middle East as the reason she repeatedly voted against defense appropriations bills.

“If I wanted to express a concern about the fact that we were not winding down and bringing our troops home from Afghanistan quickly enough, I would express my sentiments through my votes on those bills,” Hirono told Civil Beat. “I can tell you one thing: I’m very aware of how important military activity is in Hawaii. If ever there was a bill that made huge, huge cuts… I certainly would not be supporting such a bill.”

‘It Would Have Been Great For Gadhafi’

One of the high-profile issues on which Hirono and Hanabusa have disagreed is the United States’ role in Libya. Hanabusa supported a Republican-backed measure directing the president to remove U.S. armed forces from Libya, a proposal that was seen by many as a political statement meant to express disdain with the president’s approach in Libya. Hirono voted against the measure, which ultimately passed 268 – 145.

President Barack Obama’s controversial decision to involve the U.S. military in NATO’s Libya mission has raised questions about whether Obama flouted the War Powers Act, which limits the president’s ability to enter into wars without congressional approval.

Hawaii’s congresswomen explained their votes based on the level of information they said they received from the Obama administration.

Hirono said that the White House adequately explained the importance of responding in Libya, both as a way to show solidarity to foreign allies and send a message to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Hirono told Civil Beat that she supports a “short engagement” without American troops on the ground in Libya.

“The secretary of state came before the vote to explain what was going on and the importance of our country’s part,” Hirono said. “Gadhafi has more American blood on his hands than anybody else in the Middle East besides (Osama) bin Laden. Our European allies asked us to participate. This was a very different thing than going into Iraq… To not support the president in this limited participation would have been terrible. It would have been great for Gadhafi.”

But Hanabusa said she wasn’t satisfied by what she heard from the White House.

“Even if it meant voting for (Republican Speaker John) Boehner’s bill, I’ve consistently voted against Libya,” Hanabusa told Civil Beat. “Nobody’s really given us a clear statement as to why we’re there, what the cost is and what our role is. It seems to me that the statement is, ‘We don’t have any boots on the ground,’ so somehow this makes it OK.”

Hanabusa is not convinced that the United States intervened in Libya to stand by its allies.

“It really is because of oil,” Hanabusa said. “The quality of the sweet crude that they’re producing. I’m not willing to start the precedent that they say we’re (entering Libya) for because it can spread across the whole Middle East… I have a philosophical issue with expanding our efforts into Libya.”

Split On Spending

While Hirono and Hanabusa both voted in support of the high-profile debt ceiling bill that ultimately passed earlier this month, they haven’t always agreed on how to handle government spending.

In addition to casting opposite votes on how to handle defense spending on several occasions, Hanabusa voted against a measure that pertained to legislative spending. Hirono voted in favor of that resolution, which ultimately passed. Hanabusa said she couldn’t recall details about that vote, which took place in late June.

Roll call votes represent just a portion of the decision-making required by members of Congress, who also vote on legislation at the committee level. Many times, lawmakers turn to staffers or others with expertise to guide decision making.

“Certain situations, I will vote because it’s a subject matter that I’m very familiar with,” Hanabusa said. “But if I need to reach out and I don’t have the time to go in and research it thoroughly myself, I rely on what my staff comes up with. A lot of times, it’s from our constituents as well. If they feel it’s very critical, we will get contacts.”

Patent Reform

One measure on which Hanabusa says she sought advice on how to vote pertained to patent reform. Congress has long discussed the importance of overhauling the United States patent system in a way that encourages growth and protects entrepreneurs.

Hanabusa supported the patent reform bill that ultimately passed the House, 304 – 117, in June. She said she turned to Democratic California Rep. Mike Honda, whose Silicon Valley district has struggled with the current patent system.

“In certain areas of patent reform that affect the high-tech industry, I really do seek out the advice of those who have been doing it a lot longer, how it’s going to impact this new industry,” Hanabusa said. “I do remember voting for the measure because of the fact that I was told (about it) when I asked for guidance by someone that I respected.”

But Hirono is among a group of people who argue that the reform doesn’t do enough to help entrepreneurs, and instead helps big business. She voted against the patent reform measure.

“The major concern is there are a lot of small inventors who said they would be very disadvantaged by this bill,” Hirono said. “I’m looking out for the small inventors, the creativity that comes from a lot of our small companies, the entrepreneurs who are out there. Not the big boys who are up there.”

Shades of Blue

Hanabusa and Hirono usually vote together, and with other Democrats. But based on the key differences that Civil Beat examined, Hanabusa votes with Republicans more often than Hirono does.

On more than two dozen occasions when Hanabusa and Hirono voted differently, Hanabusa crossed the aisle to vote with a Republican majority, most of the time on matters related to defense appropriations. Hirono voted with a Republican majority without Hanabusa seven times. There were six times in which Hanabusa and Hirono voted together, and with a Republican majority.

“I don’t know whether it’s philosophically the way Mazie considers things, but she does tend to vote with the leadership position,” Hanabusa said. “If there’s anything that differentiates us, it may be that. I view myself as more of an independent and more of a middle of the road kind of situation.”

Hirono explains that she doesn’t make decisions based on Democratic leadership, and points out that she has introduced bipartisan legislation like a recent bill pertaining to early education. Hirono’s tendency to vote with her party is a natural reflection of her core political beliefs, she said.

“Generally speaking, I do view the Democrats as being the people who are supporting the middle class and who care about protecting Medicare and Social Security,” Hirono said. “The Democrats are the people with whom I share priorities… I don’t just say, ‘Uh, (House minority) leader Nancy (Pelosi), how should I vote on this?'”

Hirono and Hanabusa say they don’t speak much with one another about how they vote, in part because there are so many measures to consider.

“The one thing that we will do, and it isn’t something that’s spoken, is (that) if Mazie proposes an amendment, I will vote for her amendment, and I will ask my colleagues to vote for her amendment,” Hanabusa said. “I believe amendments that have my name on them, Mazie does the same thing. But it’s not like we sit around and we plan it.”

Hanabusa said the congresswomen did sit down to discuss the Akaka Bill, a controversial measure aimed at securing federal recognition for Native Hawaiians. Both women support the bill.

Looking at the eight-month span so far this year — with or without discussion between them — Hanabusa and Hirono still found themselves agreeing on 87 percent of the issues that required their roll call votes.

“It’s really important to acknowledge that our delegation has worked really well as a team,” Hirono said. “It strengthens us and multiplies our effectiveness.”

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