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Sen. John McCain back in front, waging influence as dealmaker

Reporters surround Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as he heads to a showdown between Republican and Democratic leaders over presidential nominees and a threatened revamping of fillibuster rules last week. McCain brokered a deal in the standoff.

Associated Press

Reporters surround Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as he heads to a showdown between Republican and Democratic leaders over presidential nominees and a threatened revamping of fillibuster rules last week. McCain brokered a deal in the standoff.

WASHINGTON — As fellow Republicans slipped into a room in the Capitol for a private meeting, Arizona Sen. John McCain held court outside, surrounded by a flock of reporters.

"What about you, jerk?" he teased Kasie Hunt of NBC News, who gave it back: "Do you take offense to the term 'Old Bull?' "

McCain's eyes lit up and he laughed.

"Is that Sen. McCain? Oooooh," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was passing by, whispered in faux awe.

The 76-year-old, twice-failed presidential candidate is back in front, reprising his role as a bipartisan dealmaker, occasional irritant to his own party and quote machine. In the latest sign of his influence, McCain brokered a compromise last week to avert a Democratic threat to employ the "nuclear option" upending filibuster rules.

When Majority Leader Harry Reid — the same senator who once declared "I can't stand John McCain" — announced the accord, he spilled with praise, saying "no one was able to break through but for" McCain. President Barack Obama, who in 2008 buried for good McCain's presidential aspirations, mentioned him in a congratulatory statement.

Meanwhile, more than a few Republicans smoldered and a conservative group attacked him for "appeasement."

"I'm just a senator who has been around for a while and has developed some relationships," McCain demurred in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

McCain has been a constant presence this year, playing a lead role with Schumer in crafting the immigration bill that passed the Senate last month. He steadfastly defended the bill as fellow Republican negotiator Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida dithered. Rubio is keeping a distance from the issue now as McCain talks about building a campaign to win over the House.

He publicly chided young Republicans for partisan rigidity and hypocrisy in refusing to go into budget negotiations after Democrats finally met demands and produced a spending plan. He was one of four Republicans to vote for additional background checks on gun buyers.

And the former Vietnam POW has bucked his party to call for the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

But he has not spared Obama criticism on the health care law or foreign policy. On Thursday — just two days after finalizing the filibuster deal — McCain confronted Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over what he sees as an inadequate response to Syria and threatened to hold up Dempsey's reconfirmation.

"There's nothing more enjoyable to him than a saloon fight," said John Weaver, who was chief strategist for McCain's 2008 campaign. "It's like a scene from an old western where the lawman walks into a bar, chairs are flying and he doesn't know which side to get on at first but eventually is involved."

• • •

It's another turn in a career that has seen McCain go from a sideline player with a famous temper and penchant for berating members of both parties, to the self-styled, straight-talking presidential candidate in 2000 who lost a bitter primary to George W. Bush, to the 2008 candidate who gave the country Sarah Palin, fueling the tea party movement that now loathes him.

Facing a conservative challenge in his 2010 Senate re-election, McCain rushed to the right, changing his tone on immigration and global warming, only to veer back to where he sits today, reclaiming the sobriquet "maverick."

"I never liked that moniker," McCain said. "When I called for (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld's resignation and I disagreed with Bush and I voted against the tax cuts, then I was the maverick. And then after I lost to Obama, I was the angry, bitter old man. It's interesting how all of a sudden John McCain's personality changed so much."

He has been here before. In 2005 when Republicans threatened to throw out filibuster rules to get judicial nominees past Democrats, McCain helped strike a deal. He was credited for upholding protections of the minority, but it also stirred distrust among conservatives that carried through to the 2008 presidential campaign.

Last weekend, McCain began to help cobble together Republican support to avert another filibuster crisis, burning through cellphone charges as he worked out details with Schumer. ("I hope you crash," he joked to a bike-riding Schumer.) McCain said "lots" of people reached out to him to help, including the White House, which has come to see him as a key player.

In recent months, McCain has made trips to huddle with Obama or his aides on various issues, including immigration and the budget. On Wednesday, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., met with Obama on national security issues.

With the filibuster crisis over for now, McCain expressed hope the deadlocked nature of the Senate can improve, joking lawmakers have a favorability "just below a colonoscopy."

But the dealmaking has not pleased everyone, and Senate Republicans show signs of breaking into factions. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky looked weak during the filibuster standoff, unable to broker his own deal and then suggested he was kept out of the loop.

McConnell has his own troubles, facing re-election and also having to contend with the crop of new conservatives such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who are less interested in compromise or Senate decorum.

McCain earlier this year called them "wacko birds."

"John has become the foil to that very vocal faction," said Ana Navarro, who was director of McCain's Hispanic outreach in the 2008 White House run. "In the old Senate, John was seen as the guy with the fiery temper. In the new Senate, he's the responsible adult in the room.

"Almost every other Republican has political concerns about taking on the tea party, or angering Republican organizations that might make them pay dearly in primary elections. John doesn't care," she said.

• • •

With growing speculation this could be McCain's last term, there's talk of legacy building and reconciliation.

McCain tacked hard right during the 2008 race, disavowing his previous moderate stance on immigration and again in 2010, when he faced a conservative challenge in his re-election campaign. The stimulus plan he voted for? I was misled, McCain insisted. The man who worked with Ted Kennedy on immigration reform in 2007 suddenly became a hardliner, declaring in one TV ad, "Complete that dang fence."

"You've been the first one who's run across the aisle," a woman told him during a town hall in Green Valley, Ariz., in summer 2010. "Do you have a question?" he snapped. "Do you have a question, really?" She continued, "How can we believe you now if in the past you were so different?"

Freed from those pressures, McCain artfully concedes, "I may have emphasized some things that were important to my constituents" but denies he reversed positions.

"Every time I have done things for pure political reasons," he said, "I have paid a price. When I was in South Carolina in 2000 and they said 'What about this Confederate flag?' and I said, 'Oh that's a state issue' that was an act of cowardice. I went back down afterward and apologized but that didn't matter. The fact is I did the wrong thing."

McCain will be 80 when he faces re-election in 2016.

"He used to say to us that he didn't want to be like some of those old codgers that were in the Senate but didn't know it," said Weaver, the former strategist. "But I think if he can make a significant difference on issues he cares about, he'll want to stay."

McCain said he'll decide in a year or so, but flashed a smile before ducking into his office.

"I enjoy the battle," he said. "Being in the arena."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.

Sen. John McCain back in front, waging influence as dealmaker 07/19/13 [Last modified: Saturday, July 20, 2013 11:20pm]

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