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GOP Senators Reassess Views About McCain

"When he's arguing about something he believes in, he's arguing about it," said Mark Salter, a top aide to McCain. "It's an admirable trait, the capacity to be outraged."

Salter scoffed at the idea that McCain is not fit to be president and said most stories about his temper are "wildly exaggerated." He pointed to McCain's success at "across-the-aisle cooperation" with Democrats as an example of how he would deal with Congress if elected president.

Those legislative wins include a major campaign finance law in his name in 2002 and a deal with 14 Democrats and Republicans in 2005 that broke Democratic filibusters on judicial nominees. "That resulted in a lot of good, solid, conservative jurists being confirmed," Salter said.

McCain's battles with colleagues have often gone beyond the ins and outs of policy, taking on a fierce personal tone that other senators do not often engage in, at least not in public.

Stevens, for example, has long stuffed the annual Pentagon spending bill with earmarked provisions for his home state that draw the ire of McCain, who has crusaded against such pet projects. In 2002, Stevens inserted an unusual provision in the defense appropriations bill that allowed Boeing Corp. to lease fuel tankers to the Air Force for $21 billion.

McCain regularly took to the floor to criticize the provision and tried to steal jurisdiction from Stevens's subcommittee so he could kill the deal. "This is the same kind of egregious behavior we often rail against here on the Senate floor when it comes to corporate scandals," he said.

While he has lost almost every earmark fight with Stevens, McCain won the Boeing battle by using his perch atop the Commerce Committee in 2003 and 2004 to investigate the lease deal, uncovering corruption inside the Air Force procurement office.

As president, one of McCain's most critical relationships would be with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a necessary ally in the conflict with a Democratic-led Congress. But their relationship has been gravely tested.

In 2003, after McConnell challenged the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in court, McCain gave testimony that almost accused McConnell of breaking federal laws. Under oath, he said that in 1998 McConnell tried to scuttle McCain's legislation to settle lawsuits against the tobacco industry by informing GOP senators that Big Tobacco would spend millions of dollars supporting candidates who opposed McCain's bill.

McConnell has denied the nature of the allegation, but that deposition culminated a five-year fight between the senators over the tobacco bill and the campaign finance legislation. But McConnell said last week that he would have no trouble with McCain as the nominee or as president.

"We've had a great relationship since," McConnell said. "All of them [McCain's fights] have been respectable and entirely within the traditions of the Senate."

McCain's relationship with House Republicans has been strained for years. After stumping for more than 50 GOP candidates during the 2000 campaign, McCain dramatically scaled back his efforts in 2002 out of pique toward House Republicans who opposed his effort to overhaul campaign finance law. In 2004, while McCain was objecting to GOP-backed tax cuts, then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) suggested that the senator, a former prisoner of war, should go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to see what "sacrifice" meant to the nation.


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