Agape With Wrath

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Apparently John McCain was operating under a 120-day cooling-off period.

In the four months since the presidential race, the former Republican nominee has been, for the most part, a graceful loser, returning to the Senate to lead the loyal opposition with dignity. But yesterday, he exploded.

"I hope the American people will rise up -- rise up!" he exhorted on the Senate floor, chopping the lectern with his hand.

He growled. He roared. He flushed. He sputtered. He glared at colleagues. He hurled angry words, words such as "slap in the face" and "outrageous insult" and "disgraceful" and "theft" and "corruption."

"If it sounds like I'm angry," the senator from Arizona explained, "it's because I am."

This disclosure hardly seemed necessary. For while McCain's topic was familiar -- he was protesting the inclusion of earmarks in a spending bill -- the source of his ire was less notable than its intensity. His pair of speeches on the Senate floor, delivered within minutes of each other, resembled a public experiment in primal-scream therapy.

McCain went after President Obama. "I just went through a campaign, Mr. President, where both candidates promised change in Washington, promised change from the wasteful, disgraceful, corrupting practice of earmark, pork-barrel spending," he said. Pounding the papers on his desk, he went on: "So what are we doing here? Not only business as usual; but an outrageous insult to the American people."

He went after Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the 84-year-old chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We're going to spend $2 million for the promotion of astronomy in Hawaii," McCain said with disgust, glancing at Inouye. "I ask the senator from Hawaii: Why do we need $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii when unemployment is going up and the stock market is tanking?"

He went after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, calling his explanation for the existence of earmarks in an omnibus spending bill "disingenuous on its face."

He went after budget director Peter Orszag, ridiculing his call to "move on" from the earmark dispute. McCain's shouts echoed in the chamber: "Nine thousand earmarks, billions and billions of dollars of unneeded and wasteful spending, and the president's budget person says, 'This is last year's business. We want to just move on.' That's insulting to the American people. . . . Does that mean that last year's president will sign this pork-barrel bill?"

Though C-SPAN beamed McCain's wrath to the nation, only a few lucky senators got to experience it in person. Among them was Thad Cochran (Miss.), the ranking Republican on the appropriations panel who only minutes before McCain's tirade said he would support the bill. Cochran, who once said the thought of a President McCain "sends a cold chill down my spine," fell under the Arizonan's glare.

"I want to freely acknowledge that Republicans were guilty of this as well," said McCain, who had been shooting hostile glances at Cochran and pumping his arms in the air. "I've said time after time, there's three kinds of members of Congress: Republican members, Democrat members and appropriators."

McCain seemed to wrestle in recent days with his role. Just last week, he gave a speech with qualified support for Obama's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as he tore into the administration and his congressional colleagues yesterday, the old Mac was back, with full fury.

It was hard to fault McCain on the merits as he described contents of the $410 billion spending bill: $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa; $6.6 million for termite research in New Orleans; $2.1 million for the "Center for Great Genetics" in New York; $1.7 million for a honeybee factory in Weslaco, Tex.; $333,000 for a school sidewalk in Franklin, Tex.; $207,000 for a tattoo removal program in Los Angeles; $143,000 for an online encyclopedia in Nevada; and $951,500 for a "sustainable Las Vegas."

"What does that mean?" McCain demanded. "What does 'sustainable Las Vegas' mean?" The other earmarks -- for the Alaska PTA, a South Dakota rodeo museum and a robotics center in South Carolina -- sounded little better. "Two hundred thirty-eight thousand dollars for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Honolulu, Hawaii, when people are out of a job!" McCain railed. And then there were the earmarks worth nearly $10 million requested by a lobbying company, PMA Group, that was raided by the FBI over its campaign donations.

But only McCain could know for sure whether his outburst was provoked more by the earmarks or by the apparent acquiescence of the man who defeated him in November. "So much for the promise of change," McCain began. Buttoning his coat and straightening his tie, he reminded everybody again that both he and Obama vowed to end earmarks. "President Obama said during the debate in Oxford, Mississippi, quote, 'We need earmark reform. And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure we're not spending money unwisely.' " Instead, McCain said, several table thumps later, "the president will sign this appropriations bill into law -- it's the president's business."

"Here we are promising the American people hope and change and what have we got?" McCain asked, recalling Obama's campaign mantra. "Business as usual. . . . So much -- so much -- for the promise of 'change.' "

A few in the gallery applauded, and the presiding officer called for order. McCain, reunited with his temper, stormed off the floor.

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