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McCain MIA

Democrats in Congress are working hard to push President Obama’s cap-and-trade plan off the radar screen. A rift has formed over a government program for healthcare, with liberals angry that Obama is “open” to reforming the system without one. There are 13 legislative weeks left to reach their self-imposed August deadline. And we already know what the Republican response is to Obama’s energy and healthcare proposals: No.

With hope for change dissolving into gridlock, it’s clearly time for a maverick, someone who has worked across the aisle and put Country First during his entire public service career. That would be Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the guy who lost to Obama and promised not six months ago in his concession speech to “do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.” Two weeks later he was meeting with Obama and again pledging the same cooperation.

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McCain would be the right person, and this would be the right time, for a Republican legislative heavyweight to take the lead on energy and healthcare as a majority of members of both parties in Congress continue disagreeing. Though Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has spent months working on a bipartisan healthcare bill with his counterpart, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the effort could surely use a boost from McCain, who has worked closely on healthcare with Kennedy in the past.

In the absence of any leadership on either issue from the top of the GOP in the House or Senate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has become the de facto message man for Republican policy positions on healthcare and beyond. He is at liberty to add any issue to his portfolio; not one Republican on Capitol Hill would object — congressional Republicans are happy for any direction, even from the unelected. After recently taking strategy advice from Joe the Plumber, they could soon be reading his white papers, too. For Democrats, the very idea of McCain the Dealmaker coming to big-foot them would surely prompt faster consensus.

But McCain can’t make it to the table this time. Fresh from defeat in the presidential campaign, he is preparing to fend off a challenge from the right in his primary election next year. Essentially, he’s back on the campaign trail, so don’t expect any legislative compromising. McCain’s opponent founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and is criticizing McCain’s votes for “reckless bailout spending,” as well as his record of “opting to hold our nation’s border security hostage to his amnesty schemes.” McCain won’t be sticking his neck out on immigration should it actually come up again, and he is staying awfully quiet on healthcare. In a speech on energy at the Reform Institute in Washington this week he blasted Obama’s cap-and-trade plan as “irresponsible” and “ill-conceived,” criticizing the Obama administration repeatedly throughout the speech.

Perhaps the most dramatic issue on which McCain fought President Bush and his party was that of torture, asserting that even useful information gleaned from such tactics cannot justify them in light of the damage they produce to the reputation of the United States. But this week McCain found fault with Obama’s decision to release the memos depicting those now-prohibited interrogation tactics. McCain called the release “a serious mistake.”

Should McCain prevail in his primary race next year, and be reelected as the senior senator from Arizona, he is likely to want to join in again to solve the big problems before the end of his political career. It’s just the way McCain is. But that McCain is busy this year.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.