WASHINGTON — His hopes for the presidency dashed yet again, John McCain returns to the Senate as the Republican iconoclast his GOP colleagues find hard to embrace and one his Democratic peers would love to win over.
Hard feelings aside, the four-term Arizona senator still stands as an effective lawmaker — and critical vote — whom both parties will pursue.
McCain headed a GOP ticket that suffered significant down-ballot defeats in both the Senate and House. Shaken Republicans facing a bigger Democratic majority are welcoming McCain with what passes for warmth, collegiality and compliments.
"I think it is indisputable that he is our best-known and most prominent senator," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said last week.
Republicans need McCain or any senator who might join them during fights to keep a stronger Democratic majority from rounding up the votes to shut down GOP filibusters.
Democrats will control the White House and Congress for the first time in 14 years. Nonetheless, they need McCain, too, for the compromises he might help forge on the economy, immigration and Iraq.
In a gesture of fealty to his own party, McCain came out of his postelection respite to campaign for GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia's Dec. 2 runoff. He urged Georgia voters to back Chambliss, warning that Democrats will increase taxes and cut defense spending and the GOP needs to strengthen its ranks.
He's also working with the Democrats. He agreed to meet with Obama on Monday to forge a working relationship.
McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said, "He is eager to work across the aisle with colleagues on both sides and doing what he can to improve the country's economic security." In addition to the economy, she said his priorities include Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether he has credibility even among Republicans may become clear during the coming week's lame duck session of Congress.
His most recent legislative work was not convincing. He was unable to deliver enough GOP votes to pass the first version of the $700-billion economic bailout plan, for which he briefly suspended his presidential campaign. A second version later passed and McCain voted for it. But unlike Obama, McCain did not speak in its favor in the Senate — a move said to disappoint some GOP leaders.
But McCain's legislative work through 26 years in the Senate wins universally high praise. Many predict he will use his position as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee to help Obama and Democrats develop an exit strategy for most U.S. forces in Iraq.