Eyeing '08, Sen. McCain courts K St.

Good-government advocacy groups working on lobbying reform say their longtime ally Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has played a smaller leadership role on the issue than they had expected.

Good-government advocacy groups working on lobbying reform say their longtime ally Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has played a smaller leadership role on the issue than they had expected.

McCain’s lower-than-hoped-for profile on the sensitive subject coincides with what prominent lobbyists describe as a quiet effort by his political team to court inside-the-Beltway donors and fundraisers in preparation for a possible 2008 presidential run.

Though the coincidence may raise questions about why McCain is not being more outspoken about lobbying reform, a senior Republican strategist dismissed any link between McCain’s involvement in the reform effort and his presidential ambitions.

“I suspect the lobbying reform isn’t tied to that,” said the strategist, who observed that it would be difficult for McCain to help forge an 11th-hour compromise between the parties or the House and Senate if he takes a staunch position at this early point in the debate. “He wants to ride in to save the day on lobbying reform.”

And an aide to a Democratic senator who has been heavily involved in lobbying-reform discussions said that McCain has been a stronger advocate of meaningful reform than almost every other member of the GOP caucus.

But outside the Senate, McCain’s usual allies say he could have done more to strengthen what they consider a generally disappointing reform bill. At the same time, lobbyists say that McCain has been reaching out to K Street to strengthen his national fundraising network. While McCain’s efforts to court Bush contributors around the country have been reported, his efforts inside the Beltway have been overlooked.

“McCain has been missing in this debate,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “He was missing in action when it first starting flaring at the end of last year.”

Holman said that when “he did step in what everyone expected to be a leadership position” he introduced a bill that disappointed proponents of strong reform and sparked a partisan dispute with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic point man on reform.

A McCain aide expressed confusion over the groups’ criticisms and pointed out that only one person, Holman, said that his boss had been absent on lobbying reform. The aide said McCain introduced the first bipartisan lobbying reform bill and has attended every senators meeting on reform matters.

He added that the governmental-affairs panel used McCain’s bill as the foundation of its legislation. He also said that McCain hasn’t played as prominent a role as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn) because they are the chairwoman and ranking member on the governmental-affairs panel.

Mike Surrusco, the director of ethics for the group Common Cause, noted that the bill McCain unveiled in the fall didn’t include any provisions to enforce lobbying regulations.

“He hasn’t been as out in the forefront as Lieberman or Collins. I don’t know if he’s been absent. He hasn’t played the leadership role he has in campaign-finance reform.”

Common Cause was one of McCain’s closest allies during the debate over campaign-finance reform a few years ago.

Gary Kalman, an advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Group, said that he didn’t think McCain has been absent, noting that McCain participated in bipartisan negotiations to create an enforcement provision with Obama. But Kalman added, “I wish he’d been more publicly vocal in speaking out and had been a stronger supporter of the more significant reforms.”

Unlike many in his caucus, however, McCain has emerged as one of the strongest supporters of creating an office of public integrity for the Congress. Reform groups say that creating such an office is their top lobbying reform priority, and McCain has called it “a vital aspect of real reform.”

It may be that reformers are unfairly comparing McCain’s actions to the role he played in 2002, when he pushed campaign-finance reform through Congress despite the opposition of most of his party. At the time, McCain had recently lost his effort to capture the Republican presidential nomination and his White House hopes were considered slim.

McCain raised eyebrows among reformers last year when he declined to team up with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), his staunch ally in past campaign-finance battles. Feingold used to joke that people had begun to think that his first name was McCain because they were mentioned together so frequently.

Feingold and McCain both introduced lobbying-reform bills last year but did not co-sponsor each other’s bills.

Feingold explained in an interview that McCain wanted to wait until after the Indian Affairs Committee, which he chairs, had finished hearings on indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff before endorsing legislation. He said that he is talking with McCain about lobbying reform on “almost a daily basis” and that they are “working very closely.”

Feingold and McCain had also worked closely in the weeks leading up to introduction of the McCain lobbying-reform bill last year, a Senate aide familiar with their negotiations said. But in the end Feingold decided not to sponsor McCain’s bill because it did not go as far as his own in restricting certain lobbying activities.

Several of President Bush’s lobbyist “Pioneers,” who raised more than $100,000 for his campaign committee, said that McCain is reaching out to K Street to bolster his prospects in the 2008 GOP primary.

“There was sort of an expectation that McCain’s time had passed because of the 2000 race, but based on his activity level he is anything but finished,” said Timothy Powers, co-chairman of Artemis Strategies and a major Bush fundraiser. “In fundraising he’s getting down to reaching out to K Street. It might be overstating it to say that he’s locking down K Street, but he certainly has made that a major part of his early steps in the process, knowing full well that reaching down to K Street players downtown translates into corporate support outside D.C.”

Last year, McCain revived his leadership political action committee, Straight Talk America. Between July 1 and the end of January, he raised $54,000 from 39 donors who are lobbyists or work for firms that register to lobby, according to a review of records filed with the Federal Election Commission.

One of those donors, Wayne Berman, managing director of the Federalist Group, raised at least $200,000 as a “Ranger” for Bush’s 2004 campaign, according to Public Citizen. He gave $5,000 to McCain’s PAC. Steve Gordon of Steven H. Gordon and Associates, a Bush Pioneer who raised at least $100,000 for Bush, gave $1,000 to McCain.

McCain, in a brief interview, said he is raising money for Republican candidates and not concentrating on 2008.

“I’m traveling the country as I always do,” he said.

But prominent lobbyists say that McCain’s activity is geared toward 2008.

Former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), a 2004 Bush Pioneer and a lobbyist for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said that McCain’s fundraising team has reached out successfully to D.C. fundraisers.

“I know that he’s spoken to a lot of folks in the Washington community,” Paxon said. “I know they’re looking to sign up Washington-based fundraisers and fundraisers across the country. I think he’s had positive results.”

More in In the News

AEI scholar: Thornberry, McCain 'couldn't be more different'

Read more »