Video: McCain Sounds Off
updated 2/8/2006 1:57:50 PM ET 2006-02-08T18:57:50

The biggest political story in Washington is the battle between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.  In a blistering letter , Senator McCain accused Obama of, quote, “using the ethics reform issue for self-interested partisan posturing” and apologized for thinking Obama was sincere. 

This is the first time any prominent national politician has publicly criticized superstar Obama.  Why did Senator McCain go after the freshman senator? 

Senator McCain joins Chris Matthews to explain.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST 'HARDBALL': What was your original relationship with Senator Obama on Congressional reform? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  Well, my relationship was fine with him.  We had a difference of viewpoint because he sent me a letter that basically said that, as I read it, we weren‘t going to work together.

And he‘d been at a meeting with me and the chairman and ranking member, Senator Collins, Senator Lieberman, as we worked towards lobbying reform, which we have to do.  And then I received a letter that basically said that he wasn‘t going to do that.  Actually, I didn‘t receive the letter before I got pressured for it and so I responded with a little straight talk. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you about the original—it seems to me, looking at the exchange of letters between yourself and Senator Obama, the Democratic senator for Illinois, that you initially put together a bipartisan effort and then he withdrew from the deal and went back and said and told you in no uncertain terms, I‘m not dealing with you anymore in a bipartisan fashion, I‘m going off and going to do this as a Democrat. 

MCCAIN:  Well, I had a conversation with Senator Obama and he said that was not his intention, but the way I read the letter, after I heard from the press that it was on his way, that indeed that that was the case, including touting Senator Reid‘s proposal, which has no Republican sponsors and will not, and we all know that we have to work together.  And so I responded and Senator Obama and I had a conversation, and we agreed to move on. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you stand by your letter back to Senator Obama? 

MCCAIN:  Sure. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look at it because I think that people will learn a lot from this about—I know you‘re being nice now, but the way in which Obama treated you here.  The first line of the letter—I thought we were going to see this on the prompter here?

“I‘d like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate and our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere.”  You‘re basically saying what here?

MCCAIN:  I‘m saying that I believe that his efforts were sincere at the time.  The letter that I received contradicted that, at least my reading of it, and I don‘t know how you read it any other way, and so therefore I—that‘s exactly what I said.  It was a little straight talk, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I concluded—there‘s more here.  “I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable.  Thank you for disabusing me of such notions.”  You‘re saying to the guy I thought you were a gentleman and a civil servant and now you‘re obviously not. 

MCCAIN:  Well, I thought it was pretty well written, didn‘t you? 

MATTHEWS:  I think it was tough. Ken Mehlman, the chairman of your party, has gone after Hillary Clinton for being angry, as if there‘s something wrong with it.  This is a letter of a very sophisticated, angry senator.  What‘s wrong with being angry? 

MCCAIN:  I‘m not angry. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this letter is brilliantly angry. 

MCCAIN:  Well, I wasn‘t angry when I wrote it.  Look, I wrote the letter because I was very disappointed in the letter that I received from Senator Obama, and was told to me by the press. 

Look, this is a pressing issue.  We have to move forward in a bipartisan fashion.  You know and I know that if—the only way you resolve one of these issues is in a bipartisan fashion, and so that‘s why I felt strongly about it. 

In the room where Senator Collins, the chairperson of the Oversight Committee, and Senator Lieberman—and we had all agreed to move forward with her committee as quickly as possible.  And there was reference in the letter to a task force, that frankly we had committed to moving forward with the committee process. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I worked on the Hill for many years.  I used to notice there was a big difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives.  The Senate was bipartisan by its nature.  It was people that found common ground where they could and didn‘t waste a lot of time. 

The House of Representatives was mainly about taking party positions and seeing who won.  Do you think that Obama is behaving like a House member here rather than a senator? 

MCCAIN:  I hope not.  I hope that he made a mistake and that we can move forward.  And I continue to work with Joe Lieberman and many other senators, because they realize that we‘ve got to get work done on a bipartisan basis.  Have times changed?  Of course they have changed, and for the worse. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, we‘re hoping to get Senator Obama to come on and talk about how you‘re going to work together.  But are you—have any confidence now that he will join your bipartisan effort? 

MCCAIN:  Well, I hope so.  We have agreed to move forward and that‘s what‘s important at this point, and we‘ve probably provided enough entertainment for a while. 

MATTHEWS:  That letter that you sent, and we were beginning—I‘m not going to quote any further from it.  I think we caught the gist or tone of it.  Senator, do you stand by this letter? 

MCCAIN:  Sure. 

[McCain and Obama letters below]

McCain's Letter to Obama
February 6, 2006
The Honorable Barack Obama
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Obama:

I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. When you approached me and insisted that despite your leadership’s preference to use the issue to gain a political advantage in the 2006 elections, you were personally committed to achieving a result that would reflect credit on the entire Senate and offer the country a better example of political leadership, I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter to me dated February 2, 2006, which explained your decision to withdraw from our bipartisan discussions. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again.

As you know, the Majority Leader has asked Chairman Collins to hold hearings and mark up a bill for floor consideration in early March. I fully support such timely action and I am confident that, together with Senator Lieberman, the Committee on Governmental Affairs will report out a meaningful, bipartisan bill.

You commented in your letter about my “interest in creating a task force to further study” this issue, as if to suggest I support delaying the consideration of much-needed reforms rather than allowing the committees of jurisdiction to hold hearings on the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The timely findings of a bipartisan working group could be very helpful to the committee in formulating legislation that will be reported to the full Senate. Since you are new to the Senate, you may not be aware of the fact that I have always supported fully the regular committee and legislative process in the Senate, and routinely urge Committee Chairmen to hold hearings on important issues. In fact, I urged Senator Collins to schedule a hearing upon the Senate’s return in January.

Furthermore, I have consistently maintained that any lobbying reform proposal be bipartisan. The bill Senators Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson and I have introduced is evidence of that commitment as is my insistence that members of both parties be included in meetings to develop the legislation that will ultimately be considered on the Senate floor. As I explained in a recent letter to Senator Reid, and have publicly said many times, the American people do not see this as just a Republican problem or just a Democratic problem. They see it as yet another run-of-the-mill Washington scandal, and they expect it will generate just another round of partisan gamesmanship and posturing. Senator Lieberman and I, and many other members of this body, hope to exceed the public’s low expectations. We view this as an opportunity to bring transparency and accountability to the Congress, and, most importantly, to show the public that both parties will work together to address our failings.

As I noted, I initially believed you shared that goal. But I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party’s effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness. Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn’t always a priority for every one of us. Good luck to you, Senator.

John McCain
United States Senate

Obama's letter to McCain
February 6, 2006
The Honorable John McCain
United States Senate
241 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear John:

During my short time in the U.S. Senate, one of the aspects about this institution that I have come to value most is the collegiality and the willingness to put aside partisan differences to work on issues that help the American people. It was in this spirit that I approached you to work on ethics reform, and it was in this spirit that I agreed to attend your bipartisan meeting last week. I appreciated then - and still do appreciate - your willingness to reach out to me and several other Democrats.

For this reason, I am puzzled by your response to my recent letter. Last Wednesday morning, you called to invite me to your meeting that afternoon. I changed my schedule so I could attend the meeting. Afterwards, you thanked me several times for attending the meeting, and we left pledging to work together.

As you will recall, I told everyone present at the meeting that my caucus insisted that the consideration of any ethics reform proposal go through the regular committee process. You didn't indicate any opposition to this position at the time, and I wrote the letter to reiterate this point, as well as the fact that I thought S. 2180 should be the basis for a bipartisan solution

I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response. But let me assure you that I am not interested in typical partisan rhetoric or posturing. The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem.

Barack Obama
United States Senator

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