Emboldened McCain eyes lead role in showdown over debt and deficit

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has told Democratic leaders he wants a prominent role in debt talks this fall, alarming conservatives.

McCain struck a major deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week to avert the “nuclear option” and approve seven of President Obama’s nominees.

He gained kudos and Democratic friends, but some believe he undercut Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and handed Reid a big win.

Now McCain, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, wants to be in the room when negotiators seek a deal to raise the debt ceiling and prevent a government shutdown.

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“I think he would desire — I’ve talked to him a little bit about it, of trying to avoid a standoff and coming to some kind of agreement,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership. “He’s somebody who has the respect of his colleagues on both sides and would rather get something done than just stand in a corner.”

Schumer had about 30 conversations with McCain over the last few days as they made a last-ditch effort to avoid a showdown over the Senate’s rules. The agreement McCain put together will allow Senate Democrats to confirm seven of Obama’s pending nominations, and takes off the table, at least for now, the threat that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will trigger the so-called nuclear option to force a rules change. 

McCain on Wednesday brushed off a question on what role he might play in tax and spending negotiations after the August recess.

“I don’t have any role. I follow Sen. Graham’s lead,” he quipped while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stood nearby.

“Yeah right,” Graham said.

Graham, McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, said he and McCain want to ensure Congress finds a budget compromise that will turn off about $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade.

“What we all should be focused on is replacing sequestration in a way that does not destroy the military and kill the [National Institutes of Health],” said Graham. “I think John can be very helpful. I think anybody who cares about the military ought to speak up.”

McCain, who faced a primary challenge in 2010 and is up for reelection in 2016, has strengthened his relationship with Obama this year. He and a handful of other GOP colleagues dined with the president at the Jefferson Hotel in March, and he has met with the president at the White House.

By and large, McCain and Obama in 2013 have been on the same page on the nuclear option, gun control and immigration. 

The former GOP presidential nominee has taken a higher profile in the budget fight by criticizing junior conservative colleagues for blocking Democratic requests to convene a Senate-House conference on the budget. He also attacked Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) amendment on his border security amendment last month.

Several Republican lawmakers expect McCain to play a major role in upcoming fiscal talks. One GOP senator, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the dynamic within his caucus, said that’s because McConnell has stayed out of high-profile fights in recent months.

“For any deal, McCain’s going to be in the middle of it,” said the lawmaker. “McConnell’s obviously pulling back because of his election.”

McConnell let McCain and other Republicans take the lead in negotiating the immigration reform package in the spring. Democrats say McCain did an end-run around McConnell this week.

McConnell aides, however, dispute that characterization of the recent negotiations over Obama’s nominees.

They point to what one aide called “a robust effort on McConnell’s part to fight against the nuclear option that began in the spring and continued into the summer.”

Senate conservatives aren’t thrilled about the possibility of McCain taking a leading role in budget talks.

A senior aide to one conservative senator said, “I don’t think conservatives will let him use his maverick approach to have the same influence on the budget talks as he did on nominees. People care about nominees, but when you talk about taxes, that ratchets it up to a whole higher level.”

They are concerned because McCain has expressed willingness to raise taxes as part of a broader deficit-reduction deal. McCain has said he wants to close wasteful loopholes and subsidies such as special tax breaks for ethanol production.

Some Republicans fear that McCain is playing into the Democrats’ strategy of dividing and conquering the GOP.

Conservatives’ suspicion is further fueled by McCain’s co-authorship of the immigration reform bill, which a majority of Senate Republicans opposed and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has declared “dead on arrival” in the House. They also remember his vote against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

But Democrats are glad McCain has resumed his old role as Senate dealmaker. They see him as one of the few lawmakers with enough clout to serve as a negotiator on major fiscal issues.

Democrats have voiced frustration in recent months over the lack of an obvious partner for high-level budget talks. 

Boehner has ruled out further one-on-one talks with Obama, insisting instead on regular order. And Democrats are skeptical that McConnell will reprise his partnership with Vice President Biden while he still faces a possible challenge in a Republican primary next year. Biden and McConnell put together a deal on taxes to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” on New Year’s Eve.  

McConnell’s relationship with Reid became strained during the recent fight over the Senate rules. McConnell declared Reid would be remembered as the worst majority leader in history if he used a simple majority vote to strip the minority party’s power to filibuster nominees.

This year, McCain has developed a strong working relationship with Schumer, whose influence in the Democratic Caucus is rivaled only by Reid’s. They also helped negotiate an agreement on Senate rules reform at the start of the new session. 

Reid, who has had a hot-and-cold-relationship with McCain over the last decade, lauded the senior senator from Arizona this week for his work to avert the nuclear option.