Whose 100 Days Are They, Anyway?

McCain's aggressiveness has Bush sharing the stage

He's systematically rolling out new plans designed to keep the promises made during his 2000 Presidential campaign. He's not only talked the talk about the need for bipartisanship but he's also teamed up with liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy on key parts of his reform agenda. Despite the braying of pundits that he has no mandate, he's aggressively forging ahead--and riding high in the latest public opinion polls.

President Bush? Well, yes. But the same words apply equally to George W.'s primary campaign nemesis, Arizona Senator John McCain. Forget that Bush vanquished McCain at the polls last spring and that the Senator was supposed to head back to Capitol Hill and fall in line with the President's program. Bush, like many a President before him, is pushing a big agenda for his first 100 days. More unusual is McCain's aggressive pursuit of a parallel agenda--a second "first 100 days."

Indeed, McCain is doing everything but falling into line. He's held town meetings around the country to build support for his campaign-finance reform plan. He's used his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee as a bully pulpit to criticize airline service. And he's called numerous press conferences to push a broad reform agenda stretching from the Pentagon to Medicare.

During his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination, McCain built a grassroots reform movement of centrist, swing voters that both parties desperately want to attract. "In the long run, McCain will become the Republican Party's leader. He's a uniter, not a divider," says Northwestern University freshman Benjamin C. Kohlmann, who attended McCain's town hall meeting on Feb. 12 in Evanston, Ill.

"ENERGIZED." With such support, it's not surprising that the maverick has transformed himself from the Senate's bad boy into the most visible--and arguably the most influential--person on Capitol Hill. "He'll never give up," says Senator Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a key McCain ally on campaign-finance reform. "I've never seen him more energized. We're going to keep going until it's done, and then we're going to do more."

While Bush has been unveiling his priorities on a theme-a-week basis, McCain has attached his name to about 20 measures in the first three weeks of the Bush Presidency. The top priorities: campaign-finance reform, "bill of rights" proposals for both managed-care patients and airline passengers, and enhancing telecommunications competition. Still on McCain's to-do list: extending the moratorium on Internet taxes, creating new privacy protections for the electronic age, and closing the "gun-show loophole" that circumvents background checks of buyers at gun shows.

McCain's activist agenda has rankled some of Bush's closest advisers, who worry about a personal and policy rivalry between the former foes. One White House adviser said the senior staff was "very upset" when they learned that McCain planned to hold a press conference on HMO patients' rights with Kennedy--a prime target of the recent Bush charm offensive--during the President's "Tax Cut Week."

In retaliation, the White House pressured two pro-reform Republican Representatives, Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) and Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), to skip the McCain-Kennedy event. "I'm sure there are some bad feelings left over from the Presidential campaign," says Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), a prominent moderate who joined McCain and Kennedy. Norwood complied with White House wishes, but Ganske refused.

McCain's activist agenda and his powerful soap box at the Senate Commerce Committee pose a threat to the Presidential honeymoon. Bush aides feel that McCain is focusing on items the Administration wants to avoid during its first 100 days while distracting public attention from the President's own priorities: a $1.6 trillion tax cut, education reform, and Social Security.

McCainiacs, meanwhile, are furious at anonymous sniping from Bush operatives, as well as their handling of the patients' rights flap. And Republican strategists fear that internecine bloodletting could weaken the party going into the 2002 midterm elections, where control of Congress is at stake. "Guys at the White House need to stop sitting around sticking pins in their McCain doll," says GOP strategist Scott W. Reed. "McCain is McCain. He's no shrinking violet. They have to learn to deal with it."

McCain denies that he is trying to one-up the new President. "I am pursuing issues I've been in pursuit of for many years," he told BusinessWeek. "I've been involved in campaign-finance reform since '87. I've been negotiating a patients' bill of rights for well over a year." McCain says he's doing his best to work with the White House, though he hasn't gotten a call from Bush or his staff since an Oval Office meeting Jan. 24. "He's been very busy," McCain offers.

The Senator and Administration officials insist that they share common goals: lower taxes, smaller government, a reduction in pork-barrel spending, Pentagon retooling--even campaign-finance reform. Despite his defeat, McCain has proven that he can be a major player on Capitol Hill. Now Bush must decide which is less painful: to embrace much of the McCain agenda or to fight the battles that might tame the Senate's No. 1 maverick.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lorraine Woellert and Alexandra Starr, in Washington, and Ann Therese Palmer in Evanston, Ill.

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