A joke made its way around the Capitol yesterday: How do you know the 2008 election is really over? Because John McCain is causing trouble for Republicans again.
Two and a half months removed from his defeat in the race for the presidency, colleagues say, McCain bears more resemblance to the unpredictable and frequently bipartisan lawmaker they have served with for decades than the man who ran an often scathing campaign against Barack Obama. In some instances, he's even carrying water for his former rival.
"Mac is back!" one of his devoted friends in the Senate declared as McCain walked into the chamber Wednesday to deliver his first speech of the 111th Congress: a blunt admonishment of Republicans delaying Hillary Rodham Clinton's confirmation as secretary of state.
"I remind all my colleagues: We had an election," McCain noted. "I think the message the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together, and get to work."
In the weeks after his loss to Obama in November, McCain kept a low profile. He often cut a lonely figure as he walked from his office to the Senate floor for votes, fending off reporters with a clipped "Not now."
This week, McCain appeared to be loosening up. He was hailed as a hero by Obama at a bipartisan dinner on Monday night and had a prime seat at the post-inaugural congressional luncheon, wedged between White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Obama offered a warm greeting to McCain and his wife, Cindy, as he made his way to the dais.
The two met again at the National Prayer Service on Wednesday.
Yesterday, as McCain hurried to the Senate floor to vote, he stopped to shake hands and make small talk with a group of California students. "I'm the greeter here," he quipped to Michael Bennet, Colorado's new Democratic senator, as Bennet headed to the chamber yesterday to take the oath.
'He won't shy away from controversy'
The surest sign of McCain's return to his "maverick" ways came when he caught wind of an effort by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) to delay Clinton's confirmation vote by a day, pushing it from Tuesday to Wednesday because he was seeking greater disclosure about foreign donors to former president Bill Clinton's charitable foundation. McCain found the objection gratuitous — despite policy disagreements with Clinton, he and most Republicans consider her well qualified — and said so publicly.
"I think that's indicative of the role that John McCain is going to play," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who hatched the push-back against Cornyn's gambit over dinner with McCain on Tuesday night, and who followed him to the floor to support Clinton's confirmation. "He's going to play a very active role. He's going to try to forge bipartisan coalitions. And he won't shy away from controversy."
And he continues to march to his own tune. Yesterday, McCain applauded Obama's executive order to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year, but he said that Obama had failed to address key issues, including the fate of the detainees being held there. He voted this month against releasing $350 billion in additional money to bail out the financial sector, even after Obama trekked to the Capitol to lobby for the aid. McCain had supported the original bailout bill when it came before Congress last fall, during the heat of the presidential campaign.
Republicans have largely split into two camps in these early days of the Obama administration: those looking for any opening to assert their diminished authority, and those aspiring to help broker deals with a popular new president who has pledged a bipartisan approach to governing.
"He's an activist legislator. He's not an obstructionist," Collins said. "He wants to roll up his sleeves and solve problems, and those are the same signals that the new president is sending."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of McCain's closest allies and his co-sponsor on climate-change legislation, recalled advice his longtime friend gave him in early 2001, when Lieberman returned to the Senate after serving as the Democratic vice presidential nominee on a losing ticket. McCain had suffered his own defeat the year before, to George W. Bush in the GOP presidential primary.
"John said to me, 'I know you're disappointed, but you've gained in stature and you have the most productive years of your Senate life ahead of you,' " Lieberman said. "I'd say the same about John. He's been through it twice now, unfortunately. Obviously he would have rather won, but he's a realist."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said McCain has accepted the election outcome and decided, "Let's move on with it." He said McCain's campaign agenda remains his agenda in the Senate: immigration reform; overhauling energy and environmental policies; budget restraint; improving Social Security. "He'll be one of the leaders of the loyal opposition and he will obviously try to find that middle ground on big items," Graham said.
As for Cornyn, he said he was surprised by McCain's objection, and he still sounded annoyed a day later. "I understand his point. But there was also a serious policy reason for why I think we needed some debate and discussion," he said yesterday. Asked if he had a sense where McCain's maverick streak would take him from here, Cornyn responded: "In a word, no. I have no sense. I'm ready for whatever happens."