WASHINGTON — They have the same first name, belong to the same political party, and were born just days apart in 1924. But Democratic Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye have disagreed on a few key measures so far this year.

A Civil Beat analysis of all 123 Senate roll call votes from January through August reveals that Akaka and Inouye took opposite positions just three times this year — on the Patriot Act, financial reform and changes to the U.S. patent system.

The majority of the time, Akaka and Inouye voted the same way. Out of 123 votes, there were 16 times — or 13 percent — that they did not.1 (Read a related article about the voting differences between Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Mazie Hirono.)

Examining how Akaka and Inouye approach policy differently reveals nuances in a senatorial duo that is often seen as a unified legislative force. The current dynamic between Hawaii’s U.S. senators also raises questions about how the landscape will shift next year. Akaka is retiring in 2012, and Hawaii will have a new senator on Capitol Hill for the first time since he joined the Senate in 1990.

More than 80 percent of the time that Akaka’s and Inouye’s votes didn’t match up, it was because one of the two senators abstained from voting. Of the 16 differing votes, Inouye abstained eight times and Akaka abstained five times. That leaves three occasions out of 123 in which both senators cast votes but made different decisions.

Here’s a look at those contrasting votes:

Date Related to Akaka Inouye Final Vote D Votes R Votes ID Votes
3/3 S. 23: Patent reform amendment Yea Nay 87 – 13 (passed) 41 – 10 44 – 3 2 – 0
5/26 Extending the Patriot Act Nay Yea 72 – 23 (passed) 30 – 18 41 – 4 1 – 1
6/8 Regulating debit-card transaction Yea Nay 54 – 45 (failed) 19 – 32 35 – 12 0 – 1

Eroding ‘The Very Freedoms That Define Us’

Looking at the short list of opposite votes, Akaka told Civil Beat that his decision to vote against extending aspects of the Patriot Act was among the most difficult for him. A decade ago, Akaka voted in favor of implementing the controversial act, which dramatically increased access for law enforcement to individuals’ telephone, email and other records as a way to combat terrorism after 9/11.

“I voted for the Patriot Act in 2001, I want you to know that,” Akaka told Civil Beat. “While I had reservations at that time about the possibility that it would allow the government to infringe upon our privacy rights and civil liberties, I supported the bill at the time because I felt that we must give our government the tools it needed to fight to protect us… I do not believe that the Patriot Act makes our nation safer, it sometimes erodes the very freedoms that define us.”

Congress found itself up against the deadline for some of the Patriot Act provisions to expire, and opted to tack on an amendment to extend them to a bill that had already passed in the House in order to meet the deadline. The amendment that extends the Patriot Act was attached to an unrelated Small Business Act as a result.

Akaka said he would have preferred a “full and more open process to modify the original bill” when taking into consideration reauthorization of some of the act’s more controversial provisions, rather than simply pushing back the expiration date.

“So I had my mind made up,” Akaka said. “I was more concerned about protecting some of our rights.”

Inouye voted the other way. He did not respond through a spokesman to a question about his Patriot Act vote.

Split On Patent Reform

Another area where Inouye and Akaka voted differently pertained to patent reform. Congress has long talked about the importance of overhauling the nation’s patent system, which is plagued by lawsuits. But some attempts to make sweeping changes have been criticized as too narrow. Critics say such changes would help a select few big businesses rather than entrepreneurs and individual inventors.

Akaka voted in support of tabling — or deferring decision on — an amendment that would strike the “first inventor to file” requirement.

The United States remains one of a handful of developed countries that relies on a “first to invent” patent system, a concept that many argue is vague enough to encourage litigation abusing the patent system. But others argue that the “first to file” concept could be equally damaging. They say such a system would spark a race-to-file mentality, putting big businesses that have the resources to file quickly and often at an advantage.

Akaka said that he sees the appeal of implementing a “first to file” system in the U.S. that mirrors other countries, and hinted that he would support such a change when the Senate revisits the issue next month.

“The provision would bring the patent to accommodate with the rest of the world,” Akaka said. “You know there’s a lot of this question of the first to invent maybe should be considered but this is the one that the rest of the world also uses… All legislation really requires compromise.”

Inouye voted against tabling the measure, which ultimately passed 87 – 13.

“Senator Inouye is aware of concerns by interested parties that a switch to the so-called first to file system may not be in the best interest of our country’s innovators,” his spokesman, Peter Boylan, said in an email. “However, he also believes that these pioneering Americans will not be stifled by a change to the patent system, but will instead continue to flourish under the new rules.”

Follow the Leader

The legislation about which Akaka and Inouye disagree can be traced back to their committee leadership roles, Akaka said.

“There are times that we vote because of the kind of committees that we’re on,” Akaka said. “It does make a difference in our final votes at times.”

For example, Akaka said his role on the Senate Banking Committee led him to vote in support of an amendment to delay implementation of a controversial aspect of the Wall Street reform act. Inouye voted against a measure which would have required a study about debit-card transactions before the so-called Durbin amendment takes effect.

The amendment, named for Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, was a controversial last-minute addition to the Wall Street reform act passed last summer. Some consumer advocacy groups applauded the amendment for requiring a dramatic reduction to fees that companies can charge retailers for debit-card transactions. The amendment’s supporters say that saving retailers money helps small businesses and ultimately passes lower prices onto consumers.

But banks and other financial institutions balked at the measure, which would reduce their revenue by billions of dollars a year, and have said they will remove or reduce rewards programs as a result. Akaka said that he took that outcry into consideration when he voted in favor of delaying the Durbin amendment.

“My vote to delay the implementation of the Durbin rule was in keeping with my longstanding advocacy on behalf of consumers,” Akaka said. “The (amendment) proposed by Sen. Durbin would have caused the banks to end their free and low-cost checking programs that people rely on, and also make it more costly for banks to find better viable ways to provide financial service to the lower-income individuals.”

Ultimately, the amendment was rejected — 54 senators voted in favor, 45 against — because it did not garner the required three-fifths of Senate votes.

Inouye’s spokesman said the senator “voted with Senator Durbin, directing the Federal Reserve to promulgate a rule governing ‘reasonable interchange transaction fees’ within nine months of passage of H.R. 4173. To vote for Senator Tester’s amendment would have been inconsistent.”

‘What Benefits Hawaii’

Akaka and Inouye usually vote the same way because they tend to agree on what’s best for Hawaii, Akaka said.

Inouye’s spokesman wrote: “Senator Akaka and Senator Inouye have similar views on an array of issues, however, they are their own men and have their own convictions and opinions.”

“We talk about the times where we have some mixed votes between Sen. Inouye and me,” Akaka said. “Except for the few votes, we support the same programs, bills and amendments… We feel strongly that we need to support the party. Our votes have been really similar. I think we’ll continue to do that. I would say that our votes have been good for Hawaii and our country and, without question, we’ll continue to do our best.”

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