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 McCain (R-Ariz.) sent a stinging rebuke to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democrats’ freshman point man on ethics issues.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (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 Collins (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 Pryor (D-Ark.), Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and freshman Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Johnny Isakson (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.