Speaker, McCain duke it out

Personal grudges between House Republican leaders and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led to a series of legislative maneuvers in the last days of the session, sources say.

McCain threatened to hold up every piece of legislation in the Senate while House leaders refused to go along with McCain’s pet project of establishing a national boxing commission. The dispute kept the Senate in session past 10 p.m. on its final legislative day, signaling that intraparty squabbles will prevail when Republicans return with a stronger majority next month.

Some Senate aides said lobbying by national boxing figures such as promoter Don King, who has testified before Congress on the issue, explained the intensity of the dispute. But King said he played no role, a sign that differences between McCain and the House were at the heart of the matter.
Personal grudges between House Republican leaders and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led to a series of legislative maneuvers in the last days of the session, sources say.

McCain threatened to hold up every piece of legislation in the Senate while House leaders refused to go along with McCain’s pet project of establishing a national boxing commission. The dispute kept the Senate in session past 10 p.m. on its final legislative day, signaling that intraparty squabbles will prevail when Republicans return with a stronger majority next month.

Some Senate aides said lobbying by national boxing figures such as promoter Don King, who has testified before Congress on the issue, explained the intensity of the dispute. But King said he played no role, a sign that differences between McCain and the House were at the heart of the matter.
patrick g. ryan
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

“I have not been actively involved,” King told The Hill. “Categorically untrue. I haven’t done anything. In fact, I love John McCain. I have no opposition to John McCain and what he’s trying to do for boxing — as long as it’s for the betterment of the sport.”

In the end, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and McCain reached a deal on the boxing bill. McCain, in turn, allowed a package of telecommunications bills to clear Congress. According to a Senate Commerce Committee spokesman, McCain received assurances from Hastert “that boxing legislation similar to that passed by the Senate in the 108th Congress would receive fair and prompt action” by the House “before the first August recess.”

The spokesman added, “Senator McCain takes this offer in good faith and has always taken Speaker Hastert at his word.”

But relations between McCain and Hastert have not always been warm. Last spring, Hastert joked that he didn’t know McCain was a Republican. Asked about a comment by McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, about tax cuts and the need for sacrifice during war, Hastert responded, “If you want to see sacrifice, John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda [military hospitals]. There’s the sacrifice in this country.”

McCain responded that he fondly remembered a time when Republicans stood for fiscal responsibility. “Apparently those days are long gone for some in our party,” he said.

House and Senate aides familiar with the legislative dispute said it had little to do with the boxing bill’s substance or with the telecom bills to which McCain attached it. Some Capitol Hill insiders suggested House leaders refused to take up McCain’s bill to retaliation for his vote against energy legislation, a high leadership priority last year.

“The word I got from my lobbyists was that it was payback on McCain for the energy issue that they held that up,” said one telecommunications industry source. “Word was the House didn’t want to vote on it as a stand-alone. Privately, it was because there was just payback there. They didn’t want to give in to McCain, and they were just pissed off about the energy vote.”

A House Commerce Committee aide denied that, saying, “We’ve heard it … but I don’t think there’s any truth to it. I hope we don’t get to the level where we don’t vote on people’s bills because they voted against our bills.”

Among bills that have passed the House are measures by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and McCain, all of whom voted against cloture on the energy bill.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) has a bill to create a national boxing commission, and other House committees were reluctant to move Senate legislation at the end of a session.

Nevertheless, when McCain learned that House leaders were refusing to act on his boxing bill, he attached it to every remaining bill in the Senate, including bills dealing with universal-service transactions and other telecommunications issues.

House Republicans balked. “We wanted the telco bills to move forward as telco bills — not as something that’s diluted [with] the boxing bill whose relevance was questionable,” the Republican committee aide said.

McCain finally relented, but not until Hastert told Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that the House would take up the boxing bill. Aides said Rep. Charles Pickering (R-Miss.) helped negotiate the solution.

Hastert provided assurances that House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) “would report out a boxing bill and Hastert would bring it to the floor for a vote,” said a Senate GOP aide.

It is unclear from Hastert’s assurances whether committee action would be enough to constitute “fair and prompt action” on the measure.

King, who has been a boxing promoter for 30 years, said he has not called any Republicans on Capitol Hill about the boxing bill or contacted the White House. King was a fixture at the Republican National Convention in New York, where he sang President Bush’s praises. RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie worked with King to help Bush try to win over black voters.

King said any legislation on boxing should apply to television networks, not just to private promoters. “They’re promoters just like we are,” he said. “They sign up fighters. They broadcast the fighters.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t really care. Whatever it is, as long as it’s across the board, and it’s in the American way, I’m for it.”

King called McCain, who attended a boxing match in Las Vegas this past weekend, an “outspoken person and a great American hero.”