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GOP Senators Reassess Views About McCain
His Old Foes Still Wary Of His Pugnacious Style

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

John McCain once testified under oath that a Senate colleague inappropriately used tobacco corporation donations to sway votes on legislation. He cursed out another colleague in front of 20 senators and staff members, questioning the senator's grip on immigration legislation. And, on the Senate floor, McCain (R-Ariz.) accused another colleague of "egregious behavior" for helping a defense contractor in a move he said resembled "corporate scandals."

And those were just the Republicans.

In a chamber once known for cordiality if not outright gentility, McCain has battled his fellow senators for more than two decades in a fashion that has been forceful and sometimes personal. Now, with the conservative maverick on the brink of securing his party's presidential nomination, McCain's Republican colleagues are grappling with the idea of him at the top of their ticket.

"There would be a lot of people who would have to recalibrate their attitudes toward John," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), a supporter of Mitt Romney's who has clashed with McCain.

Many Senate Republicans, even those who have jousted with McCain in the past, say their reassessment is underway. Sensing the increasing likelihood that he will be the nominee, GOP senators who have publicly fought with him are emphasizing his war-hero background and playing down past confrontations.

"I forgive him for whatever disagreements he has had with me. We can disagree on things, but I have great admiration for him," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee who has often argued with McCain over government spending.

But others have outright rejected the idea of a McCain nomination and presidency, warning that his tirades suggest a temperament unfit for the Oval Office.

"The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), also a senior member of the Appropriations panel, told the Boston Globe recently. "He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."

A former colleague says McCain's abrasive nature would, at minimum, make his relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill uneasy if he were to become president. McCain could find himself the victim of Republicans who will not go the extra mile for him on legislative issues because of past grievances.

"John was very rough in the sandbox," said former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is outspoken in his opposition to McCain's candidacy. "Everybody has a McCain story. If you work in the Senate for a while, you have a McCain story. . . . He hasn't built up a lot of goodwill."

Santorum was a fierce advocate for the GOP's social conservative wing -- a group particularly hostile to McCain because of his apostasy on immigration and same-sex marriage -- while Cochran is considered one of the more genteel senators. Both men back Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, for president.

To McCain's allies, his fiery personality is part of the "Straight Talk" lore, and a positive quality in a passionate fighter who will tell you to your face how much he dislikes an idea.

"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.

Nevertheless, many House Republicans now view McCain as the best possible nominee. Despite the senator's heresies on taxes, immigration and campaign finance, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the Republican campaign committee, said McCain could appeal to independent voters.

"You'll have more Democrats running away from Hillary Clinton than you'll have Republicans running away from our nominee," he said.

In his first run for the presidency in 2000, McCain's temperament became an issue as campaign aides to George W. Bush questioned whether the senator was a suitable occupant for the Oval Office. Only a few of McCain's Senate colleagues endorsed him then.

But the past few years have seen fewer McCain outbursts, prompting some senators and aides to suggest privately that he is working to control his temper. This time, 13 senators have endorsed his presidential bid, more than for any other candidate, Democrat or Republican.

"We all get a little bit mellower," Salter said. "But he doesn't get up every morning saying, 'I must control my temper.' "

Last spring, however, McCain's confrontational side reappeared during a closed-door meeting of senators from both parties. After spending six weeks away from the Senate, he showed up for final negotiations on a fragile immigration bill, leading Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) to question where he had been. McCain responded by swearing at Cornyn loudly and repeatedly, according to witnesses.

Cornyn, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate, doesn't expect to befriend McCain anytime soon but said he will happily stump for him as the nominee.

"We've had our moments, but we've gotten over that and moved on down the road," Cornyn said. "You're talking about people who are professionals. You don't have to link arms and sing 'Kumbaya' to get things done."

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