McCain Ditches Combative Role to Become Obama Senate Ally

Photographer: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Sen. John McCain, R-AZ., talks with reporters as he makes his way into the U.S. Capitol on June 25, 2013. Close

Sen. John McCain, R-AZ., talks with reporters as he makes his way into the U.S. Capitol on June 25, 2013.

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Photographer: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Sen. John McCain, R-AZ., talks with reporters as he makes his way into the U.S. Capitol on June 25, 2013.

In one week, John McCain brokered a compromise to avoid paralysis in the Senate over President Barack Obama’s nominees, introduced banking legislation with Democrat Elizabeth Warren and publicly disputed some Republicans’ approach to raising the U.S. debt ceiling.

McCain, who championed the Senate immigration measure that’s a major part of Obama’s agenda, also has been a frequent visitor to the White House. He’s met Obama there at least three times in the past two months and had conversations with White House aides every few days.

The fifth-term Arizona senator said there’s “nothing unusual” about his partnerships and compromises with Democrats, which he likened to his willingness to defy Republican President George W. Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

“Everybody said when I called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, when I voted against the tax cuts and all that, I was the brave maverick,” McCain said in an interview at the Capitol. “And then when I was against President Obama, I was the angry, bitter old man. I’m the same guy, OK?”

The 76-year-old senator has become Obama’s strongest Republican ally on Capitol Hill, in a major shift from the acrimony that marked their relationship during and just after their 2008 White House race.

“I’m going to reluctantly have to agree that he’s changed,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “At a crucial time in the Senate, he’s been one of the few Republicans willing to sit down and negotiate compromises with Democrats.”

Erasing Damage

McCain’s critics have suggested that the often short-tempered lawmaker is trying to reclaim his “maverick” image in the twilight of his political career to erase damage to his legacy resulting from his choice of Sarah Palin as his 2008 vice presidential running mate.

McCain also had been criticized for moving to the right in his 2010 primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth, who accused McCain of supporting “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. In December 2010, McCain called it a “very sad day” when the Senate voted to repeal the military’s policy banning openly gay and lesbian service members.

McCain is a natural fit for negotiating in part because the Senate’s top two Republicans -- Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn of Texas -- are facing primary rivals in their 2014 re-election bids. Challenger Matt Bevin, a Louisville investor, yesterday called McConnell “a career politician who’s been throwing the taxpayers’ money away.”

‘Straight Talk’

Over his 25-year Senate career -- and 2000 and 2008 White House bids where he traveled the country on his “Straight Talk Express”campaign bus -- McCain cultivated a reputation as a centrist willing to take on his party.

He was the main Republican sponsor of the 2002 law revising the nation’s campaign-finance laws, which McConnell opposes, and was an early advocate of abolishing congressionally directed spending known as earmarks. That eventually became a chief rallying cry of the anti-tax Tea Party wing of his party.

In the days just before a July 16 compromise that averted a Democratic threat to strip Republicans of their ability to block Obama’s nominees, McCain said he made “phone call after phone call after phone call” to try to resolve the dispute and met with Reid.

“He’s doing some of the same things he’s done all along -- trying to protect the institution,” said Senator Jeff Flake, McCain’s Republican colleague from Arizona. “I’ve seen more consistency than anything else.”

Cordray Vote

The deal that McCain helped broker led to the confirmation of Richard Cordray, Obama’s choice to run a consumer financial protection bureau born of the worst recession since the Great Depression. McCain was among 12 Republicans who voted to confirm Cordray while McConnell, Cornyn and other Republican leaders opposed the nominee.

“John McCain is why we are where we are: No one was able to break through but him,” Reid said on the Senate floor announcing the deal. The compromise included replacing two Obama nominees to the National Labor Relations Board that Republicans contended had been unconstitutionally appointed.

On July 11, McCain paired with Warren -- an icon of the Democratic base -- to introduce legislation that would create a modern version of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era measure that separated commercial and investment banking.

‘Real Independence’

“Senator McCain has shown real independence and a willingness to take tough stands that I admire,” Warren said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Nobody understands how to get things done in Congress better than he does.”

McCain said he and Warren “share the same view about Glass-Steagall so it shouldn’t surprise anyone” that they are working together on a measure he says restores a firewall needed to protect taxpayers and restore confidence in the U.S. financial system.

The proposal would separate commercial banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from participating in riskier investment activities, including swaps dealing, hedge funds and private equity.

McCain in 1999 voted for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which overturned core portions of Glass-Steagall.

Debt Limit

In a July 19 radio interview with host Michael Medved, McCain cautioned his party against another round of “shenanigans” over the debt limit increase that Obama is tentatively scheduled to seek later this year. He added that pressing to repeal the 2010 health-care law as a condition for increasing U.S. borrowing authority would prove futile.

Obama and Senate Democratic leaders are demanding a “clean” debt limit increase, while House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said this week that more spending cuts should be agreed to before raising the ceiling.

Rebecca Tallent, a former McCain aide who directs the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration task force, disputed any notion that McCain’s politics were a moving target. She said by chance the Senate has debated in recent weeks matters where McCain was naturally well positioned to serve as a lead Republican negotiator.

“Everybody wanted to write the story after the campaign that he was bitter and he was angry at Obama,” Tallent said. “But I think it really is more about the issues.”

Tallent pointed out that McCain has been a vocal critic of the administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Benghazi Criticism

Following the attack, McCain and South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham vowed to block Susan Rice if she were nominated to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. McCain and Graham accused Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, of misleading the public about the roots of the attack, which led to the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

“If Benghazi happened tomorrow, I think you’d see him saying the exact same thing he said six months ago,” Tallent said of McCain.

Last week, McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, threatened to block General Martin Dempsey’s nomination to a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of a dispute over U.S. policy in Syria. He has since said he won’t block Dempsey’s nomination, while leaving open the possibility he could vote against it.

‘Contentious’ Times

Graham, a close friend of McCain’s, said he hadn’t seen a shift in McCain’s approach.

“The times in which we live are getting more contentious, and that’s when a guy like John sticks out,” Graham said in an interview at the Capitol.

During an almost two-hour White House meeting July 17, McCain said he pledged to help Obama close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a goal that the two men have shared dating back at least to the 2008 campaign.

“Does he want to end up the end of his second term with Guantanamo open?” McCain said of Obama. “The president of the United States, like all presidents in their second terms, looks at their legacy. And there are areas that we have worked on.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net

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