Politics & Policy

Can Anyone Stop John McCain?

The contrarian might be the most lethal threat to a GOP victory in the budget battles this fall.

Top Republicans woke up Tuesday morning to the news that President Obama was offering what he described as a “grand bargain,” offering lower tax rates in exchange for closing certain loopholes for big business. GOP leaders view Obama’s proposal as a regression from previous negotiations, however, and are working to swat down early press reports that describe it as a significant conciliatory gesture.

“Not a ‘bargain,’ let alone ‘grand,’” read the first GOP press release at 9:24 a.m. from Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell followed about an hour later on the Senate floor, ripping the proposal and saying that even offering it was “a serious blow” to chances “for true bipartisan action in Washington.” Throughout the day, congressional Republicans nearly universally panned Obama’s “offer.” Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina laughed mockingly at the notion Obama was offering a “grand bargain,” telling me it was just “the same old repackaged stuff coming out in another campaign speech.”

#ad#But it wasn’t impossible to find Republicans willing to praise the president. Senator John McCain of Arizona and his top ally, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, took a different tack from most of their colleagues. “It’s a good start,” McCain tells me. “Certainly we would not accept the president’s offer now. But we also want to continue the discussions we’re having, which we hope would lead to serious negotiations.” 

Somewhat surprisingly, given that he faces reelection in 2014 in a conservative state, Graham was if anything to McCain’s left on the issue. Specifically, he praised the idea of new stimulus spending on infrastructure, which McCain criticized. Obama’s offer “is moving in the right direction,” Graham says. “The big challenge for us is, what do you do about long-term entitlements? That has to be addressed.”

McCain and Graham are being hailed in certain quarters for providing a beleaguered president the newfound ability to pass meaningful legislation in the Senate, where the need for a 60-vote supermajority to overcome a filibuster affords the minority Republicans some leverage. The New York Times editorial board, for example, praised McCain and Graham’s efforts on immigration as “a welcome reacquaintance with reality” for the GOP. The Washington Post praised McCain for having the courage to work out a deal on nominations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But many House Republicans view McCain as the most lethal threat to a significant victory on spending cuts in the budget battles this fall. The Right’s worst fear about McCain is that he and five or six of his allies could sign on to a Democratic bill at the height of a debt-ceiling showdown, giving Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid the imprimatur of bipartisanship. 

“The president is trying to grab a couple of Republicans in the Senate and then strike a deal with them to say, ‘Look — the Senate Republicans are rational, and the House Republicans are not,’” says Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma, the Republican policy chairman.

It’s a scenario that has occurred repeatedly since the GOP took control of the House, most recently on immigration. At times, as with the “fiscal cliff” and a fight over extending the payroll tax, a bipartisan Senate bill has completely destroyed the House’s standing in the fight.

The answer House Republicans give is that this time, they don’t care what the Senate does. “McCain can go hang out with the president all he wants — we’re focused on actually solving the problem,” says Republican Study Committee chairman Steve Scalise. Just because the Senate does something, that doesn’t mean the House will follow suit, Representative Tom Price of Georgia adds.

One factor that could ease worries in the House is that the ongoing budget negotiations between the White House, McCain, and a group of his fellow Senate Republicans are still largely focused on determining how big the deficit will be over the next 30 years, rather than on the achievable reforms that could rein it in.

Still, McCain is embracing his latest contrariness so eagerly that it has colleagues on edge.

The anger — “does that guy have an opinion on everything?” asks one House Republican lawmaker — is punctuated by the fear that no one can do anything to stop McCain.

“Nobody’s telling John McCain anything,” says Price, lamenting the “very challenging” dynamic in the Senate. 

McCain, who jokes openly that he is a “Senate snob,” certainly won’t listen to the House. But many Republicans are wondering whether anyone in the party can stop McCain from helping the Democrats in the fall.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.

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