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McCain strengthening his political marriage

/ Source: The New York Times

Senator ’s recent harsh critique of the Republican-led response to no doubt reminded some of his newfound allies in Congress that his independent image was often honed at his party’s expense.

Mr. McCain, the go-his-own-way Arizona lawmaker, has had an up-and-down relationship with Republican colleagues for years, particularly those in the House. He feuded openly with the former Republican leaders, whom he often treated with disdain and suspicion — a sentiment they often returned.

That checkered past has stirred mixed emotions among House Republicans, who embrace the candidate McCain as a potential savior whose maverick reputation could rescue them in an off-year for the party brand.

But they worry just what a President McCain would portend for them come January, given their divergent views on big-ticket items like immigration, climate change and campaign spending, to name just three. They would prefer not to be thrown under the Straight Talk Express on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“For the pure, die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool Republican, they probably have a little bit of heartburn,” said Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican and McCain supporter retiring from the House at the end of this year.

Mutual advantage to pull together
The McCain campaign and House Republicans, in an effort coordinated by Representative of Ohio, the party leader, are engaging in a bit of therapy to strengthen their political marriage. Top McCain officials gathered recently with chiefs of staff to House Republicans to emphasize the idea that it is to their mutual advantage to pull together as the election unfolds.

Mr. McCain has reached out more to the House leadership. Republican officials say that Mr. Boehner sought and received assurances from Mr. McCain in a private meeting in February that he would not ignore the interests of his backers in the House when pushing his policy ideas.

Mr. Boehner would not comment on those discussions. But he noted that, on major topics like the Iraq war and federal spending, most House Republicans and Mr. McCain are now in sync.

“Will there be an issue or two where we are going to be out of step? Sure. But we were with the Bush administration,” Mr. Boehner said. “The fact is that McCain is in a very solid position to win the White House, and Republicans are united around him.”

But it was not always that way. There was no love lost between the former speaker, ; the majority leader, ; and Mr. McCain. Much of it was because of the senator’s push for campaign finance changes, a crusade that Mr. Hastert considered a betrayal and led him to question publicly whether Mr. McCain was in fact a Republican.

Mr. McCain also liked to ridicule Congressional earmarks, the pet projects on which Republicans were feasting. And he led a Senate investigation into the bilking of Indian tribes by the lobbyist , a source of great embarrassment and trouble for Mr. DeLay and other Republicans.

“They just hated McCain’s style of politics,” said Charles Bass, a former House member from New Hampshire who now leads a moderate Republican group.

Mr. McCain also complicated life for Republican leaders when, in the bungled aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they raced to recover with a sizable emergency aid plan. He instead joined a bloc of conservatives who cautioned about adding too much of the aid directly to the deficit. Last Thursday, on a trip to New Orleans, he revisited the issue, saying Congress had been too busy putting money into home-state projects to spend enough to protect New Orleans.

Contrary views now help candidacy
Republicans acknowledge that Mr. McCain often annoyed them in the past and that he sometimes seemed to take contrary views just to be contrary. But they also note that Mr. Hastert and Mr. DeLay are gone and that Republicans are trying to regain their credibility on spending restraint. Opposition to earmarks has gone from being a fringe Republican position to one the party is promoting.

“His grandstanding turned out to be right on a lot of things,” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia. “More troops in Iraq, earmarks, cutting out some of the spending.”

Many Republicans have now concluded that it is only Mr. McCain’s willingness to challenge recent Republican orthodoxy that has left him in a position to credibly contend for the White House, given public dissatisfaction with Republican leadership.

“If he hadn’t disagreed with us, he wouldn’t have a chance of being president,” said Representative Zach Wamp, Republican of Tennessee. “He is the one guy who can be the candidate for us this cycle.”

Mr. Wamp and others say the potential for intramural clashes with Mr. McCain is easily outweighed by the desire for a Republican president to preside over crucial matters like appointments and national security.

But the potential for disharmony certainly exists, given the likelihood that Democrats will retain control of Congress no matter who wins the presidency, combined with Mr. McCain’s demonstrated capacity for engineering compromises, whether it be campaign finance law, immigration or the environment.

“If you are a single-issue person or a really ideological person on a cluster of issues, in John McCain your ship has not come in,” said Senator , Republican of South Carolina and a close McCain ally. “He will be conservative, but this hard-edge ideology that is embraced by the hard left and the hard right, John has made a career of not giving in to that.”

In fact, some see a potentially divided government, with Mr. McCain on one side and a Democratic Congress on the other, as an opportunity to make major agreements. And that is a prospect that could leave some Republicans now in the McCain campaign camp out of the final picture.

This article, , originally appeared in The New York Times.