WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain, the Republican maverick who nearly derailed President Bush's campaign last winter, came calling at Bush's White House Wednesday to discuss McCain's signature issues of campaign finance reform and pork-barrel spending.
The two politicians stepped gingerly around each other and took pains to call the conversation cordial and productive. McCain, of Arizona, said he was convinced "we can work together" to stem the flow of big money into politics, while Bush's spokesman said the president regards his former rival as "an ally on many issues" before Congress.
But at the end of the 45-minute conversation in the Oval Office, it was clear that neither man had budged on the main issues that divide them. McCain said he was determined to press for an early Senate vote on legislation to ban unlimited soft-money contributions and to restrict independent spending for and against political candidates; Bush remains strongly opposed to a key provision of that legislation.
The only glimmer of progress came on the issue of "paycheck protection," the demand of Bush and other Republicans that any campaign-finance legislation bar labor unions from using members' dues for political purposes unless they obtain authorization from each member.
Democrats, who rely on union support, adamantly oppose such a provision, and McCain has resisted it on the ground that it would kill any chance of passage for his bill.
But he said Bush expressed at least tentative support for broadening the provision to cover corporations as well, requiring them to obtain permission from stockholders before using corporate funds for political contributions.
"I think the president found that to be something that also would be fair and equitable," McCain said.
However, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush still believes that individuals, as opposed to corporations and unions, should be allowed to keep donating soft money, something McCain rejects as an unacceptable loophole.
"The president continues to believe that individuals have a constitutionally protected right to give," Fleischer said.
Despite that major difference, McCain and the president's spokesman insisted they are not that far apart after all. "I come away with the distinct impression that he is favorably disposed to continued discussions on this issue and seeing if we can't work out something, with the common belief that both of us hold that this system needs to be fixed," McCain said.
McCain rode his message of banishing big money from politics and purging wasteful pork-barrel spending to a stunning victory over Bush in last year's New Hampshire primary and followed it up with another triumph in Michigan.
Bush recovered and eventually defeated McCain, but only after a rough campaign that left his rival openly embittered and lukewarm in his support for Bush in the fall.
Since Bush's election, McCain has insisted he supports the president and has no wish to interfere with his agenda. But he has also spurned requests from Republican leaders to let Bush's legislative priorities be brought up ahead of campaign-finance reform, saying delay would mean death for his bill.
McCain said Wednesday he is negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on the timing of a vote on his bill and is optimistic he can secure an agreement for a vote by the end of March.
If no agreement is reached, McCain said he and co-sponsor Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., will fulfill their threat to tie up the Senate by attaching their bill to every piece of legislation that comes up.
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