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McCain the dealmaker returns

John McCain’s political identity has once again evolved.

From Republican maverick in the early George W. Bush years to ardent foe of the Obama presidency, the Arizona Republican senator has now re-emerged as a dealmaker at a time of increased partisanship and dysfunction in Washington.

Over the last few months, McCain helped craft the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill that passed the Senate by a bipartisan 68-32 vote, and he dined with President Barack Obama to discuss ways to resolve Washington's budget battles.

Most recently, he worked with Democrats earlier this week to defuse a standoff over Obama's executive-branch nominees, with the two parties striking a deal to end the GOP's blockade of these appointments. Democrats had vowed to change the Senate’s filibuster rules if Republicans continued to deny up-or-down votes for those nominees.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the deal wouldn’t have been possible without McCain’s work.

“John McCain was somebody who felt … that we shouldn’t break the [filibuster] rules here. But he also understood that certain agencies were being blocked -- not because of objections to the individuals but because people didn’t like those agencies and that was wrong,” Schumer said on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” on Wednesday. (Schumer also has partnered with McCain on immigration.)

“We worked together long and hard at his initiative,” Schumer added. “By the end, we got to a deal, and it’s much better for everybody.”

McCain’s role as a dealmaker early in Obama’s second term is the latest transformation for one of the current Senate’s longest-serving and highest-profile members.

After losing to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, McCain became one of the president’s chief critics in his first term, opposing the stimulus, the health-care law, and even Obama’s two Supreme Court picks. He also voted against the New START nuclear-arms treaty with Russia, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and even the DREAM Act -- after previously backing past immigration-reform measures.

But before that opposition, he was one of the top dealmakers in George W. Bush’s second term, helping to forge the “Gang of 14” agreement to approve many (but not all) of the former president’s judicial nominees. He also worked with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in crafting a comprehensive immigration reform that was a top domestic priority for Bush. But the immigration effort never became law.

Yet before that, McCain was a thorn in Bush’s side, especially after losing the 2000 Republican presidential nomination to him. He voted against the Bush tax cuts, and he successfully pursued campaign-finance reform -- something his party never really embraced.

In fact, this seems to be pattern: McCain has been an obstacle to both Republican and Democratic presidents in their first terms -- especially after losing to them -- but then has transformed into a dealmaker in the second term.

Beyond electoral politics (remember that McCain had to win a primary challenge in 2010), there’s another explanation for the Arizona Republican's reemergence as an dealmaker: He’s an institutionalist who realizes that his beloved Senate appears to be broken – and needs to be fixed.

As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote about McCain’s work on immigration:

Outside Washington, the Senate seems as partisan and dysfunctional as the House, but McCain and most of his colleagues cherish the unique rules that they believe still distinguish it from the lower chamber. “Even though it wasn’t publicized, it was really vital to how we do business around here,” he said of the group’s success in protecting the filibuster. “We were going to turn into the House of Representatives!” McCain was arguing, in effect, that if the Senate was going to continue to demand the need for a super-majority, it also had to show that it could pass significant legislation. And, like it or not, that meant working with Obama on one of the defining issues of his Presidency.