GOP Plaudits for McCain -- and a Few Olive Branches

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 2008

John McCain returned to the Senate yesterday to collect backslapping congratulations from fellow Republicans, who rallied around their party's likely presidential nominee even though many have opposed their maverick colleague in Congress and on the campaign trail.

Just weeks ago, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who has fought bitterly with McCain over earmark spending items, called him "erratic" and unfit for the White House. But yesterday, Cochran lined up behind his colleague. "Oh, yes, I'll support John," he said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was famously sworn at by McCain, repeatedly, in front of other senators last spring when he questioned McCain's knowledge of an immigration bill. Having stayed neutral in the presidential race, Cornyn endorsed McCain just hours after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney withdrew, vowing to do "whatever I can to support his candidacy."

Cornyn, Cochran and other Republicans lined the aisles of the Senate chamber yesterday to congratulate McCain, who returned for the first time since Dec. 18 to vote on an economic stimulus plan.

"The Republican nomination is essentially over, and I think there is widespread pride among Republican [senators] that one of our members is going to be the nominee for president of the United States," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters minutes before McCain arrived.

McConnell, one of the Republicans who have jousted with McCain, said that his colleague's campaign was left for dead last summer when it essentially went bankrupt, making his comeback an inspirational tale. "He certainly rallied from what was apparent defeat, and it was a very, very impressive performance that, I think, all of the Republican senators are proud of," McConnell said.

Romney met earlier in the day with congressional supporters at the Republican National Committee to inform them of his decision, which he announced at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. He did not endorse McCain, but most of the former governor's supporters said they would.

Sens. Robert Bennett (Utah) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), both Romney supporters who had questioned McCain's conservative credentials, were among the senators who queued up to shake McCain's hand.

McCain, 71, and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who will turn 81 in 10 days, engaged in what appeared to be celebratory shadowboxing. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who crossed the aisle to support McCain's candidacy and has stumped with him across the country, stayed glued to McCain's side for at least 10 minutes.

Still there were signs of trouble for McCain, whose greatest support in the primaries came from independents and moderate Republicans. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who had supported former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, said conservative voters still want McCain to explain ideological transgressions on immigration, campaign finance reform and opposition to President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

"John doesn't need advice from me, but clearly, conservatives want to hear him speak in detail about those issues . . . what he would in those areas as president," Vitter said.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) suggested party unity will come not from McCain's efforts but from the potential of a White House run by either of the Democratic front-runners. "He marches to his own drum; I think people appreciate that," said Gregg, who backed Romney. "He's not going to have to rally [conservatives]. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are going to do that."

McCain, who rarely votes because of campaign duties, returned a day after Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Obama (D-Ill.) showed up for votes, also creating a post-Super Tuesday stir.

Senators in both parties were ecstatic that, barring a calamity, one of their own will be sworn in as president Jan. 20, 2009. It would be just the third ascension of a sitting senator to the White House, though several former senators became president after leaving the chamber.

"I can't wait to read the stories about how it is possible for a senator to be elected president," McConnell said.

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