A year into his tenure on Capitol Hill, Barack Obama (D-Ill.) approached John McCain on the Senate floor to propose the two work together on a lobbying and ethics reform bill. The four-term Arizona Republican, 25 years Obama's senior, quickly saw a willing apprentice to help shake up the way business was done on Capitol Hill.
"I like him; he's probably got a great future. We can do some work together," McCain confided to his top staffer.
Instead, what began as a promising collaboration between two men bent on burnishing their reformist credentials collapsed after barely a week. The McCain-Obama relationship came undone amid charges and countercharges, all aired publicly two years ago in an exchange of stark and angry letters. Obama questioned whether McCain sided with GOP leaders rather than searching for a bipartisan solution; McCain accused Obama of "typical rhetorical gloss" and "self interested partisan posturing" by a newcomer seeking to ingratiate himself with party leaders.
"Please be assured I won't make the same mistake again," McCain wrote Obama on Feb. 6, 2006.
It was the first, and only, time the two ever tried extensively working together.
A looking-glass moment
More than two years later, with McCain and Obama potentially poised to go head to head in a presidential campaign with stakes far greater than regulating who picks up steakhouse tabs, the reform fight has emerged as a looking-glass moment of what a fall campaign could resemble.
McCain's backers view it as emblematic of Obama's ability to talk grand ideas and aspirations but his ultimate failure to produce substantive results. The Illinois senator's supporters contend that the moment was vintage Obama, with the newcomer defusing the feud with a cool demeanor that allowed him to claim the high ground while rolling up his sleeves to eventually help pass a broader ethics overhaul bill in August 2007.
"There was a little bit of grandstanding there [by Obama] that made it difficult to get a bipartisan effort," said former senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a McCain backer deeply involved in the failed push for ethics and lobbying reform in 2006. "This idea that, as president, he's going to be able to reach across the aisle -- there's very thin gruel that would indicate that."
"Senator Obama has every right to tout his role in that legislation," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), an Obama supporter who has often worked with McCain on reform issues. "He wasn't showboating. He was trying to get things done."
From partners to predators
Officially, both presidential campaigns downplay the significance of the encounter, saying that the two enjoy a cordial relationship and attributing the fact that they have not since found occasion to work together to time constraints and assignments on different committees. But their first tentative campaign jousting this year suggests that both men walked away from that initial encounter with doubts about the other's sincerity, in contrast with the working relationship built up over this decade between McCain and Obama's remaining Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
On the stump Obama mocks McCain's maverick image, saying McCain "fell in line" with Republican orthodoxy on tax cuts after initially opposing the $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan in 2001. He tweaks McCain for surrounding himself with lobbyists as advisers, arguing that presidential ambition has trumped his reformer convictions.
"Somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels," Obama said in January during a Democratic debate.
And McCain's camp has relentlessly questioned what the 46-year-old has done that has prepared him for the presidency.
"He really doesn't have any accomplishments. It's not a slight against Obama; he's only been in the Senate for a few years, and most of that time he was running for president," Mark Salter, McCain's former chief of staff and now senior campaign adviser, said in an interview.
Early adopters of ethics reform
In January 2006, McCain and Obama looked like natural allies. Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist whose actions had been exposed largely by the work of a committee headed by McCain, had recently pleaded guilty to bribing members of Congress.
Senate Republicans turned to McCain, whose credentials on the topic were solidified after his campaign finance bill became law in 2002, to help craft their ethics legislation. Democratic leaders turned to the freshest face they could find, making Obama their point man in a chamber he had served in for 12 months.
Obama had worked to cultivate a reformist image, leading an expansive overhaul of ethics rules in the Illinois state senate. His well-received speech at the 2004 Democratic convention made him a big draw on the campaign trail, and he hopscotched around the nation on nearly two dozen flights on corporate jets campaigning for fellow Democrats, paying only the cost of a first-class ticket for each trip. Recognizing the downside of allowing corporations to do favors that could boost his political standing, he unilaterally ended the practice in late 2005 -- about the same time McCain, another frequent flier on corporate jets, imposed a similar ban before new Senate rules barred the practice.
When Obama approached McCain to talk about working together, the veteran recalled his first days in the House in 1983 when Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) took McCain under his wing, according to Salter. "He never forgot that."
Alliance comes to abrupt end
McCain personally invited Obama to attend a February 2006 bipartisan meeting of senators. Democrats say the meeting went well and there were no signs of animosity, but some Republicans contend that Obama delivered what amounted to a high-handed speech about the culture of corruption without wanting to delve into legislative detail.
Obama was "talking more than was justified," said Lott, who was chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee at the time. "Maybe there was a little bit of pettiness on the other side."
Obama would later recall later that McCain thanked him "several times" for attending and pledged to work with the freshman.
The Arizonan, however, lost faith in Obama the next day.
Obama dashed off a letter -- promptly released to the media -- that suggested McCain, who was already considering a presidential run, had "expressed an interest" in creating a task force to study the issue. But, Obama wrote, "the more effective and more timely" route was to move a bill quickly through Senate committees.
McCain struck back at what he saw as the newcomer questioning his bona fides on reform issues. He derided Obama as a stalking horse for Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the party leader who had vowed to make GOP corruption issues the central plank of the 2006 midterm elections.
"He's sending you a press release/letter for his leader," Salter recalled telling McCain. "He did something that you just don't do."
Delivering a brush-back
Days later McCain, an avid baseball fan, told Salter to draft in response the equivalent of a pitcher throwing at the batter's head to rattle him. "He told me to brush him back. . . . You don't do things like that," Salter said.
Salter admitted his stinging letter "probably put too much English on it." The missive was quickly released to the media.
"I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me . . . were sincere," McCain's letter began.
Within hours Obama fired back his own message, calling McCain's statements "regrettable" because "you have now questioned my sincerity."
Obama backers said his handling of the issue showed that, despite being largely untested on the national stage, he was not afraid to throw a political counterpunch, even at a veteran such as McCain, and that he was able to do so without reverting to the kind of angry response McCain used. "Let me assure you that I am not interested in typical partisan rhetoric or posturing," Obama wrote McCain.
‘My new pen pal’
Serendipitously, the two men appeared two days later next to each other to testify about reform proposals before Lott's committee, during which Obama sought to defuse the spat. He began his testimony by thanking "my new pen pal, John McCain" for his efforts on the ethics legislation. The committee room erupted in laughter.
In the end, Obama and McCain ended up on the outside looking in as Lott and leaders from both parties crafted a softened ethics package. It passed the Senate on a 90 to 8 vote on March 29, 2006. Obama and McCain -- who wanted tougher legislation banning corporate flights and requiring the disclosure of lobbyists bundling donations from their clients, among other items -- were among the eight "nay" votes.
"Everybody was posing for holy pictures. It was a lousy piece of legislation," Feingold said, praising Obama for voting no even though his entire leadership supported it.
The bill died as the House and Senate deadlocked over their differing versions. Soon after the 2006 elections removed Republicans from power, Reid, now majority leader, brought Feingold and Obama back into the reform effort. By mid-January 2007, on a 96 to 2 vote, the Senate had approved a tougher ethics bill that included a total ban on gifts and meals, outlawed cheap rides on corporate jets and provided more lobbyist disclosure -- almost every provision Obama and McCain had pushed for a year earlier. Both the House and Senate approved the final bill last summer.
In his floor speech Aug. 2, Obama noted that he and Feingold worked to make a tougher bill than the 2006 version, and offered only faint praise to McCain. "Last year, I and Senator Feingold and Senator McCain, voted against it because we thought we could do better. So in January, I came back with Senator Feingold and we set a high bar for reform. And I'm pleased to report that the bill before us today comes very close to what we proposed."
McCain opposed the final bill, saying it did not go far enough to prevent special-interest earmarked spending provisions in legislation.