McCain counters Obama with sharp rebuttal on lobbying reform

The burgeoning bipartisanship surrounding the Senate’s efforts to craft lobbying reform legislation shattered yesterday, as Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSenate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight Republicans seek to lower odds of a shutdown Nunes endures another rough day MORE (R-Ariz.) sent a stinging rebuke to Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaWhite House staff to skip correspondents' dinner Overnight Energy: Trump signs climate order | Greens vow to fight back GOP lawmakers defend Trump military rules of engagement MORE (Ill.), the Democrats’ freshman point man on ethics issues.

Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidRepublican failure Senate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral Top GOP senator: 'Tragic mistake' if Democrats try to block Gorsuch MORE (D-Nev.), seeking to leverage recent Republican influence-peddling scandals into election-year gains, has tapped the photogenic Obama to coordinate the minority message on public corruption. But Obama’s eagerness to promote the Democratic line appears to have incensed McCain, whose record on campaign-finance reform gives him considerable political capital to expend on cleaning up K Street.

“I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party’s effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness,” McCain wrote yesterday in a letter responding to an Obama missive from late last week. “I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn’t always a priority for every one of us.”

While McCain and Obama have participated in preliminary bipartisan negotiations on lobbying and ethics reform, which Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has indicated he wants to pursue by the beginning of March, McCain interpreted Obama’s letter from Thursday as a decision to pull out of the talks.

Reid criticized Frist last week for scheduling the asbestos trust-fund bill, a key priority of business interests, for Senate floor consideration over lobbying and ethics reform. Frist responded with a formal request to Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSenate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight Overnight Finance: WH wants to slash billions | Border wall funding likely on hold | Wells Fargo to pay 0M over unauthorized accounts | Dems debate revamping consumer board Lawmakers call for pilot program to test for energy sector vulnerabilities MORE (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asking that she mark up a reform bill.

Meanwhile, Obama and McCain sat down with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the original Democratic co-sponsor of McCain’s lobbying reform bill, Collins, Sen. Mark PryorMark PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (D-Ark.), Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and freshman Sens. David VitterDavid VitterFormer GOP rep joins K Street lobbying firm Capitol Counsel Lobbying World Mercury brings on former Sen. Vitter, two others MORE (R-La.) and Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonOvernight Finance: Senators spar over Wall Street at SEC pick's hearing | New CBO score for ObamaCare bill | Agency signs off on Trump DC hotel lease GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes Schumer to House GOP: 'Turn back before it's too late' MORE (R-Ga.) to confer on a bipartisan solution, using the McCain bill as a framework. McCain has discussed formally convening a task force to produce legislation, and the bipartisan meeting was seen as a first step.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs expressed surprise that McCain had taken Obama’s letter as a rejection of further discussion.

“I have no idea what in Obama’s letter would have left the impression that Obama doesn’t want to work in a bipartisan fashion to achieve real lobbying reform,” Gibbs said. “He doesn’t say that, and it’s not what he means. The tone [of McCain’s response] shows it may be harder to change how Washington works than may be first expected.”

Obama sent a third letter to McCain late yesterday, reiterating Gibbs’s puzzled reaction and paying homage to McCain’s seniority.

“The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put politics aside for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you,” Obama wrote.

Obama’s letter does dismiss the idea of a bipartisan task force on lobbying reform, however.

“I know you have expressed an interest in creating a task force to further study and discuss these matters, but I and others in the Democratic caucus believe the more effective and timely course is to allow the committees of jurisdiction to roll up their sleeves and get to work,” Obama wrote to McCain.

And McCain, who continues to keep a presidential run in 2008 squarely in his sights, did not flinch from conflict with Obama, who often found himself dismissing presidential speculation during his meteoric rise from unknown state senator to Democratic luminary in 2004.

“Since you are new to the Senate, you may not be aware of the fact that I have always supported fully the regular committee and legislative process,” McCain wrote, responding to Obama’s suggestion that a task force might slow progress toward committee consideration of lobbying-reform bills.

McCain also showed a keen awareness of Obama’s recent television appearances, where he has promoted the Democratic message that the Jack Abramoff scandal is a “Republican sin,” as the young Democrat said on “Meet the Press” last month.

“The American people do not see this as just a Republican problem or just a Democratic problem,” McCain said.